• Vermont career centers push for more young women in STEM
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     | November 24,2013
     
    Photo by Erin Mansfield

    Jackson Burnham, instructor at the Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury, sits with 14-year-old Bethany Orvis. “These guys just kind of treat us like normal people,” Orvis says.

    Six high school students are working quietly on design projects at their computers in Jackson Burnham’s engineering class at the Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury. Two of them are female.

    Down the hall, students run drill presses and power grinders to hone their machining skills. All but one are male.

    The class’s gender inequity represents an extensive, nationwide gender gap in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, and the phenomenon is not unique to one school.

    In the latest effort to close the gap, the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity — a National Science Foundation-funded program — chose Vermont to participate in the STEM Equity Pipeline, which will “develop strategies to increase female student participation and completion in STEM,” according to a statement.

    The two-year project establishes a Career Technical Education workgroup, made up of public- and private-sector leaders from across the state. Team members include participants from the Vermont Agency of Education, the Vermont Department of Labor, the state’s Commission on Women, the Community College of Vermont, Stafford Technical Center, and Burton Snowboards, among others.

    The four pilot sites are Barre Technical Center; Center for Technology in Essex; North Country Career Center in Newport; and the Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury.

    The state Agency of Education will provide $2,000 grants to each school, and the agency seeks matching grants from the private sector, according to the press release. Centers will receive “professional development, technical assistance, and access to a national network through The National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity.”

    “We’ve been working for several years on what we call our STEM Academy,” says Lynn Coale, director of the Hannaford Career Center. “We pretty much committed to do it whether or not we got funding.”

    He says $2,000 would be enough to pay for substitute teachers and travel expenses for six to eight faculty members to attend conferences within Vermont.

    Burnham, an instructor for the school’s STEM Academy, says he spent three years transforming his classroom from a males-only-looking “dungeon” to an open, sunny, colorful classroom decorated with teal tablecloths and multi-colored posters highlighting women engineers.

    “I had no females,” he says. “They’re half the population.”

    Citing anti-female undertones on the covers of two issues of Popular Science magazine, Burnham says he is excited to attend pipeline conferences and learn more about how to keep subtly sexist messages out of his classroom in order to encourage young women to take his classes “not in spite of being a girl, but because they have a brain.”

    Women account for one-quarter of scientists and engineers nationwide, according to a 2009 White House fact sheet. In electrical and electronic engineering and computer network architecture, female participation rates are 8.5 percent and 11.4 percent respectively, according to a 2011 publication from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    “The predominant challenge I hear is women leaning in to their authentic selves,” says Mary Powell, president of Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility.

    Powell says the issue is “social pressure for women to value home life over professional life.”

    “There’s a lot more going on there than just personal choice,” she says.

    “My brother kind of got tracked toward (science and math), and the girls got tracked toward the arts,” Powell says about her childhood. “There was a lot of messaging that I wouldn’t be good at math, anyway.”

    “It wasn’t subtle messaging,” she says.

    At the national level, women who work in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM fields, and suffer from smaller male-female wage gaps, according to the 2009 White House fact sheet.

    However, the Vermont Department of Labor does not track occupational data by gender, says Matthew Barewicz, the Department of Labor’s chief of economic and labor market information — also involved in the Pipeline project — so information at the state level is based on the data of individual institutions and anecdotal evidence.

    The University of Vermont’s website shows no female faculty members in the chemistry department and a dearth of full-time female professors in UVM’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.

    Green Mountain Power estimates that 30 percent of the utility’s employees in technical professions and 18 percent of its engineers are women.

    “It doesn’t matter that I’m a woman,” says Mallory McDonnell, the only female engineer at Omya in Florence. “There should be no qualms about getting involved.”

    McDonnell is a 27-year-old Proctor native with a civil engineering degree from Villanova University, and she says there are many female scientists at her company.

    “You find something you like to do, and you do it. And there will be people who support you everywhere you go,” she says. “Once you have an engineering degree, the world is open to you. If you decide it’s something you don’t like, you haven’t closed any doors.”

    “Put your toe in. Try it,” McDonnell says. “It really is fun.”

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