• Women in STEM

    By Shalini Kapoor, Adjunct Professor, Kaplan University

    Momentum. It's a word that explains a lot about life, success, and how to make an impact in an increasingly complex world. We know the scientific formula for momentum-mass times velocity (p = m•v). But of course momentum can also refer to the strength or force built up behind an idea or over the course of events. The latter kind of momentum is the key for the continued progress of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

    According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women earned 57.2% of bachelor's degrees in all fields in 2010 and 50.3% of science and engineering degrees. Yet more than half of the STEM degrees were in biology, leaving a void in areas such as computer science. To make further progress, we must continue challenging the default mindset that technology and math programs are for boys-in part by building a passion for these topics as early in girls' lives as possible. This in turn will also help close the skills gap that exists in many of these fields.

    Of course, that means families have a large role to play in encouraging girls to take part in STEM. My story is a case in point. Raised in the small town of Shimla in the Himalaya region of India, I had a natural early talent for math. My father, an engineer, recognized this and motivated me to develop it. Later, I came to the United States to work toward a master's degree in computer science and made the decision to pursue my career here as well. Starting my STEM studies early, and pursuing them through grad school, made my journey possible.

    Key influencers today have recognized the importance of getting girls hooked on STEM at an early age. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged millions through its STEM Connector program. GirlStart offers intensive programs tailored toward the K-12 demographic. And the White House Council on Women and Girls works with the Office of Science and Technology Policy to mentor females who show interest in these subjects, guiding them through their academic and professional careers.

    As a result, we have seen an increase in grants— the federal government has budgeted $110 million in 2015—for a large network of school districts across the United States. That has led to 4-year STEM programs in high schools, a powerful retention tool to combat the historical drop-off of girls after seventh or eighth grade.

    Building girls' interest in STEM at an early age also means getting creative in the way these subjects are taught. That is where hands-on game-oriented learning is key, whether through robotics to teach math or toys such as GoldieBlox and Robot Turtles to inspire a new generation of female engineers and computer scientists. (Robot Turtles, a board game that teaches basic coding concepts, had the most successful Kickstarter campaign in history, raising $631,000—just a bit more than its goal of $25,000.)

    It is encouraging that the goals of nonprofits, the government, and for-profit businesses are aligned: get girls involved in STEM early and keep them focused through college graduation and beyond.

    "I thought back to my childhood with the princesses and the ponies and wondered why construction toys and math and science kits are for boys," GoldieBlox CEO Debbie Sterling told the New York Times. "We wanted to create a cultural shift and close the gender gap and fill some of these jobs that are growing at the speed of light."

    The growth that Sterling mentioned is resulting in a shift in how companies recruit for STEM jobs-many are increasingly looking for specialized skillsets within each field. Therefore, it is crucial that employers have a deep talent pool available so they can fill complex roles and continue growing. Simply put: the more qualified candidates, the better.

    A strong foundation has been set and I am hopeful about the potential for girls to become more deeply and consistently involved in STEM in the years ahead. Getting them started early is not difficult. Kids today are extremely savvy with technology-even toddlers know how to operate the gadgets that their parents own. The key is to leverage those skills so they not only use technology but understand how it works and, ultimately, invent and develop it.

    If m•v equals momentum in the physical world, you might say early immersion times strong ongoing education equals momentum in STEM for girls. Let's all keep it going!


    Shalini Kapoor is an adjunct professor at the School of Business and Information Technology at Kaplan University. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Kaplan University.

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