President Obama and American firms have every reason to be concerned about the number of Americans who are pursuing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
In the United States, 30 percent of bachelor degrees are awarded in scientific disciplines, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF), compared with 50 percent in Asia. Moreover, the U.S. has experienced a five percent decline between 2000 and 2006 in the number of foreign students relocating here to pursue those careers.
The data underscore the need to formulate strategies to enhance and promote an interest in STEM to support U.S. economic growth and continued innovation.
I attended the 2010 Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Women Leadership Network (WLN) in Japan with the U.S. State Department delegation, and the recommendations for strengthening Asian economies included providing access to employment and educational opportunities for women. An increase in the number of females pursuing STEM careers will translate to a growth in the future highly skilled technical workforce and contribute to overall strengthening of the U.S. economy. According to 2007 data reported by the NSF, women’s share of degrees in computer science, mathematics and engineering is declining even though they earn 58 percent of all bachelor’ degrees.
It is most critical to create all types of innovative ways to encourage more females to pursue science, technology, engineering and math — and to retain their interest in those fields. However, that is easier said than done. To get young girls interested at an early age is critical, and research shows that young girls develop an interest and are motivated and cultivated from elementary through high school and beyond with programs that are enjoyable and create enthusiasm. Many girls do not perceive themselves as being successful in these careers because they lack role models in their families or lack encouragement from their teachers. Consequently, the interest dissipates very early in their young lives. Girls must develop a sense that these fields are challenging, rewarding and realizable.
Teachers, parents and community groups all have a role to play in shaping girls’ perception of STEM careers and encouraging math and science enrichment activities. Universities, federal laboratories and organizations such as the Girl Scouts of America are promoting innovative programs to encourage inclusiveness in technical careers. Educational institutions from the elementary school level all the way through undergraduate college must continue to develop innovations and strategies for encouraging, promoting and maintaining female interest in STEM careers. Society in general must be mindful of avoiding stereotypes that create barriers for women who have the ability and are contemplating a STEM career.
Although I always enjoyed puzzles and games, I had no knowledge of science careers. My love for math and science began when I attended a chemistry summer program in the Baltimore City public school system, which ordered my science path, and attending Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in the engineering program, which led to my career choice.
Today I am thankful for those early experiences that led me to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering. Now I am committed to providing a life changing experience to another student.
Kimberly Brown is founder and CEO of Amethyst Technologies, LLC in Baltimore and host of Computer Mania Day.