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UM STEM Conference: Helping Girls Find Their Place In Science

UM is currently registering middle school girls for the “Expanding Your Horizons” STEM conference in April. This is its third year running. It’s geared towards keeping middle school girls interested in STEM careers.
Dave Thomas (CC-BY-NC-2)
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UM is currently registering middle school girls for the “Expanding Your Horizons” STEM conference in April. This is its third year running. It’s geared towards keeping middle school girls interested in STEM careers.";s:3:

A University of Montana study found that although many Montana students are proficient in science and math, about 75 percent of them don’t end up pursuing these fields as careers - particularly women. Women make up fewer than a quarter of all STEM professionals in the U.S.—jobs in science, technology, engineering and math. Yet they are half the workforce.

The education school at the University of Montana wants to fix this gap. UM is currently registering middle school girls for the “Expanding Your Horizons” STEM conference in April. This is the conference's third year. It’s geared towards keeping middle school girls interested in STEM careers and is part of a larger strategy to help Montana girls become more interested in these jobs and college majors. 

“They get to hang out with nerds,” said Martha Robertson. She’s an education professor at UM and is a part of the planning committee for the conference. She says the conference gives the girls a chance to meet students who are like them.

“They have similar interests. They’re not ostracized because of their interests. And they can show their excitement about something they should be excited about.”

At Washington Middle School in Missoula, eighth-graders are journaling about thermal energy in their general science class.

Eighth-grader Mia Fukumitsu attended the conference last year. She’s a regular, giggly student who is interested in science, especially space. But she says other middle school girls often feel pushed away from STEM classes.

“I think society sort of like is like ‘this is a male curriculum’ and this is like what females should do.”

She says that seeing other girls in the classes would encourage them to join.

“Well, mainly because if you’re a girl going into science and math you think it’s just going to be a classroom full of guys and stuff.”

Lisa Blank is the director of the Expanding Your Horizons Conference. She says that middle school is a key time, because it’s often when students drop out of advanced STEM classes because of social pressures.

“We know in middle school, I want to fit in, right? The last thing I want to do is look different. So if I see a career that may somehow not manage my social capital very well, that’s not going to be a choice I’m going to make.”

Blank says that having more women in STEM careers can change the types of subjects that are studied. And it could save lives.

“For example, heart attacks have been diagnosed based on male symptoms. We now know that that’s actually not true for most female individuals. How we ask questions, and what kind of questions are we asking, really comes from who you are and what’s valuable in your life.”

She also says that it would be great for women economically. STEM jobs tend to pay more than jobs in other fields. In the conference this April, the girls will get to use a flight simulator, see an air ambulance helicopter land on campus, and wear motion capture technology, which was used to make the animation in the 2009 film, Avatar.

“One of those girls in the room might have the cure for Alzheimer's. Wouldn’t that be great?”

Back at Washington Middle School, math and science teacher Brandy Thrasher dedicates her classes to getting more and more students interested in STEM careers. She just started working with the Expanding Your Horizons conference. Over her eleven-year teaching career, she’s seen an increase in the number of girls in her advanced classes.

“While I was working on my Master of Science degree I got really interested in ways that we could better teach the actual engineering skills and less sort of rote memorization, and things like that. And I think getting girls involved is especially important.”

When she first started teaching, she says, there was about a 70-30 ratio of boys to girls in her advanced math and science classes. Over time, she’s really tried to push more girls to take her classes. Today that ratio is around 50-50.

“Well, I think that girls have great problem-solving minds just like guys do. There’s been a lot of shift in society with looking at just having girls doing this research, and I think there’s still so much to learn.”

While the rest of society is still shifting, Expanding Your Horizons conference organizer Martha Robertson has a particular goal in mind for the event.

“Each year that passes in our nation, we hear less and less of, ‘the first woman to’, ‘she is the first woman to.’ We want to reach a point where we’re not identifying them as ‘the first woman to’”

Registration for the conference is now open. It will take place on Saturday, April 23.

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