On Tuesday, March 17th, 1871 hosted its first-ever virtual Policy Forum powered by the Kauffman Foundation. The topic of this Forum was the role of STEM education in building a diverse future workforce. We brought together a panel of leaders with varying perspectives on the education system including:
- Kate Grossman: Senior Editor, Education - WBEZ Chicago
- Mary Hadley: Executive Director - MakerGirl
- Natasha Smith-Walker: Executive Director - Project Exploration
The entrepreneurs, investors, policymakers, and policy influencers who attended the event spent the morning learning about factors that encourage and discourage young women from pursuing STEM careers. The group spoke about the steps that individuals, business owners, and entrepreneurs could take to promote greater gender and racial equity in STEM education.
Throughout the conversation, three themes resonated repeatedly with attendees:
1. Many schools simply lack the resources to teach STEM well.
Resource scarcity can manifest itself in many forms, including a lack of funding, human capital, or physical resources. Unfortunately, in some urban and rural areas, schools face multiple forms of resource scarcity simultaneously.
Panelist Kate Grossman shared that this type of scarcity is the reason that in 2017, Illinois redesigned its school funding model with the goal of providing schools in high-need areas with more funding in an effort to create educational equity across neighborhoods. While this change is not a panacea for the needs of all Chicago schools, it is a step in the right direction and will hopefully, over time, mitigate inequity.
2. Middle school is a particularly important time for young women interested in STEM.
Multiple studies have found that, as girls progress into high school, collective enrollment in math and science courses decreases despite the fact girls continue to perform just as well as their male peers on math and science assessments. In high school, the gender gap in STEM widens and it continues to do so in college.
As such, middle school is an important time for cementing girls’ interest in STEM. Many current programs focus on encouraging girls in middle school to pursue STEM, including MakerGirl which encourages girls to explore the creative side of STEM through 3D printing. MakerGirl’s programming is designed to show girls that you can combine math, science, and the arts.
3. Women and minorities are exposed to STEM careers at a lower rate than their peers.
This brings us to the final recurring theme: exposure. We can only aspire to be what we know, so providing young women with female examples of success is incredibly important. Panelist Natasha Smith-Walker spoke at length about the need for individuals and corporations to provide young women with the opportunity to meet scientists, engineers, programmers, etc. who look like them and who young girls can aspire to be like.
While today’s students are developing in a world that encourages more young women to pursue STEM paths than ever before, still only 35% of STEM undergraduate degrees go to women. Collaborations between schools, nonprofits, and corporate partners are essential to creating opportunities for young women to see potential paths forward.
Natasha explained that while there are certainly corporations who are opening their doors to young women for job shadowing and internships, more corporations need to get on board, too.
Interested in this topic? Here are some ways you can get involved:
- Volunteer! Do not underestimate your ability to inspire others. By becoming a mentor, taking part in career days, or letting students shadow you, you can provide an example of success for students. Additionally, tech entrepreneurs are well suited to help teachers and school administrators stay on top of tech developments and utilize them in the classroom.
P.S. Chicago Cares is a great resource for finding volunteer opportunities in your community.
- Be an Ally! In fields where women are the minority, it is important to have men who are willing to speak up and challenge company or industry practices that are exclusive to women. Allies play an important role in reshaping the status quo.
- Be an Advocate! Pay attention to education policies in your community whether or not you have school-aged children. The education that a student receives has implications not only for their life but also for the future economy. As such, it is the responsibility of all citizens to hold our public officials accountable to providing a high-quality education for all students.
Are you interested in 1871’s policy efforts? Learn more about 1871’s Policy Forum series, powered by the Kauffman Foundation. To make sure you receive an invitation to our next policy forum in Fall/Winter of 2020, please email Stephenie Lazarus at firstname.lastname@example.org.