Redefining ‘Smart’

Concern about America’s competitive advantage in the global marketplace puts science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at the forefront of state and national agendas, with recruitment of females into these fields of study dominating the conversation.

Making STEM Meaningful and Engaging

Concern about America’s competitive advantage in the global marketplace puts science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at the forefront of state and national agendas, with recruitment of females into these fields of study dominating the conversation. U.S. Department of Labor projections show nine of the 10 fastest growing occupations are in STEM. The question is how do we get more young women interested in these areas?

According to “Why So Few Women in STEM?” commissioned by the National Science Foundation (2010), the number of women in STEM is growing, yet men outnumber women in these careers. In an era when women are prominent in medicine, law and business, why are there low numbers of females in STEM? According to research, the answer lies in our perceptions and unconscious beliefs about gender in these disciplines — science and math fields are seen as “male” while humanities, arts and health are “female.” These stereotypes deter female interest and contribute to a loss of confidence about the ability to compete in STEM careers.

Dr. Nirmala Ramlakhan, PhD in Science Education from the University of Central Florida, conducts research in STEM talent and career development in females. Ramlakhan believes knowledge of STEM careers and how to access them, mentorship from successful women in STEM, and allowing females to see the link between personal passion and career choice are imperative to encourage women.

I discovered my passion for science in fourth grade where Mr. Zvirbulis encouraged my inquisitive nature, allowed my imagination to soar, and stimulated my curiosity. I felt competent and smart. My feelings of being smart grew by working on a pilot’s license in high school. I attended Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) studying aeronautics and electrical engineering. I was lucky to have a few critical components in my favor — nurtured passion and understanding of STEM careers and how they provide meaningful work.

It is imperative to redefine what STEM means to women; a conclusion drawn by me years ago. No longer should we view STEM in the stereo-typical manner geek culture perpetuates. Today’s women desire to balance multiple interests; it is no longer antisocial or an unusual career choice. The people-oriented and socially beneficial aspects of STEM will attract women, as it does in the medical and social sciences. A meaningful career embracing creativity, passion and problem solving contributes to the dissolution of stereotypes.

 Encouraging Young Women

Speaking to other women in STEM, I learned how they would change the dialog to encourage young women.

Carol Craig, CEO of Craig Technologies, discovered her passion in seventh grade in a computer science class. That first computer class hooked her on writing code while her curiosity was fostered by her mother. Carol is a computer engineer, electrical computer engineer and is completing a PhD in systems engineering at FIT. Carol said solving problems by writing code was tangible and fulfilling. To get a woman in STEM, it’s all about nurturing passion. She added, “I was never shot down; I was always encouraged. It’s all about role models in every aspect of a girl’s life.”

Mary Spio, founder and CEO of One2One.com, discovered her passion at five when she had fun with her dad doing math puzzles. She found her career path in the Air Force when an engineer told her that she was good at fixing things. The perception that she would be stuck in a lab for endless hours as an engineer made this career unappealing. But she found a passion for satellites and space and went back to college to study electrical engineering, graduating first in her class. She has multiple patents in digital cinema technology.

Leila Nodarse, whose company, Nodarse and Associates, Inc., was acquired by Terracon in 2011, said, “I never really had a passion for science or math, rather my passion was to make a difference in the world, which I believe to be the meaning of engineering.” Though her first degree was in communications, Leila chose engineering because it was “practical, solid, and marketable” and she believed “obtaining an engineering degree would make others see her as smart, not just pretty.” She added, “Science is the language necessary to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Many devoted folks are working on programs in Central Florida to connect females to careers in STEM. The challenges to make these connections are not nearly as great as the opportunities. We can redefine smart in a way that is meaningful and engaging for young women and build a future for the next generation.

Leslie_HielemaLeslie Hielema is vice president, The Orlando Center of Florida Institute of Technology.

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