Why STEM needs a Makeover


For years it has been my passion to help students realize their potential in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) related field. I have a more specific goal of bringing women into the world of STEM, not because of a bias or favoritism per se but because they have so many more obstacles to discovering their passion and talents in it.

In a telling article on the Adafruit website, Google Executive Marissa Mayer explains why there are fewer female geeks than men. It is far from an ability problem, I have seen personally that women are a necessary part of the engineering process and teams that work without them often are less successful than those who do. So what is the problem? Unfortunately it is a culture problem.

Ask a group of students to tell you what they think of when they think of a programmer and they will respond with: male, geek, nerd, unsocial, video games, etc. It is not surprising that we then see a self perpetuating cycle with college students who fit these adjectives pursuing STEM programs and others running from them. The female to male ratios are appalling and women often feel very intimidated in their undergraduate Calculus and Physics classes. I saw the women in my classes drop by about 30%!

I worked at a well known video game company and enjoyed the work well enough. However, when the work day was done, everyone would leave to go home and play video games. I am not a hard core gamer nor am I extremely extroverted but I left the company soon enough because it was frustrating to be surrounded by one type of personality.

Any ecosystem that wishes to survive needs diversity. While Google+ is hitting record numbers of new members, initial reports are showing that it is overwhelmingly 20-30 year old male dominated. If Google cannot bring in more women and a creating a more diverse population, it runs the risk of becoming a narrow niche product and that is far from the vision of Google+.

How can STEM bring in more diversity? Currently, we have a image problem. As Dean Kamen says, we get what we celebrate and unfortunately Geeks are far cooler than they were twenty years ago but they still are stereotyped as an unapproachable genius who is socially awkward. We know better, the STEM/Maker community is far more diverse than it is portrayed so lets get out there and tell the world about it. Programs like FIRST and Make Magazine do a great job of this but the message isn't loud enough. There are far fewer positive role models for women than negative with regards to the opportunities available to them. With my daughter set to enter this world in December, I refuse to let her be bombarded with the notion that she is "not smart enough" to do incredible things in any field she chooses or that she will have to sacrifice some part of her personality.

I push back against the stereotypes of lab coats (even though I own an awesome tie-dyed one), and the Star Wars obsessed Fanboys (of which I am one) being the sole culture of STEM. While I am a stereotypical geek in some ways, that doesn't mean that we are the only ones that should be admitted to the club. It would be frustrating to work with 20 clones of me because I would never experience new perspectives and disagreement. My hope is always renewed at the Maker Fair where everyone has an opportunity to "geek out" and discover something cool.

If we can open the doors of Engineering to more, then we all benefit from fresh perspective and innovation. If you are in a classroom or work with students:
  • Promote positive role models. Share articles and links beyond just those of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. If you need suggestions, check out Dot Diva, Engineer Your Life, and Lady Ada. If you have more I'd love to hear about them.
  • Be sure to create opportunities for learning and problem solving that are not one dimensional and support only one type of learner or demographic.
  • Start a program that supports a diverse group. Try learning programming with students using Scratch or Alice, explore solutions to global challenges. In a large survey study performed by WGBH Boston women want to tell stories and change the world. 
  • Discuss the advantages women have in STEM fields and the scholarships and incentives available to them.
I hope that by the time my daughter is a teenager she will live in a culture with a positive view of STEM, she of course can choose any path she wants but it is sad to think of how many incredible people are missing out on an opportunity to contribute because of peer pressure. Other countries like India and Japan revere their accomplished citizens as heroes and rock stars, there is no reason why we can't do the same.