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Array Of State Science Programs Targets Middle School Girls

JODIE MOZDZER

April 07, 2009

When Hartford Public High School opened themed academies this fall, the Engineering and Green Technologies Academy quickly filled with mostly boys, while the Nursing Academy enrolled mostly girls.

That trend boys prefer certain classes, girls others has prompted several new programs in the state to balance the normally male-dominated STEM fields science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Education in STEM subjects has long been considered important to boosting Connecticut's workforce, but educators are now specifically wooing middle school girls.

"That's the make-or-break year for girls going into science fields," said Sarah Higbie, a biology professor at St. Joseph College in West Hartford, which in February launched a program called GO-GIRL, targeting middle school girls.

Only within the past 10 years has the number of women caught up to that of men in college science programs, according to data from the National Science Foundation.

But in specific areas, such as engineering, women still lag behind men. Only about 17 percent of undergraduate engineering students were women in 2006, according to the National Science Foundation. That figure was lower than in 1999, when almost 20 percent of the engineering students were women.

Those gender disparities don't end when graduates enter the workforce. Women accounted for about a quarter of all employees in the science and engineering fields in 2006, and 11 percent of the professional engineers.

State educators and employers say reaching girls earlier, while they are still developing perceptions of women's roles in the work world, will help encourage more of them to chose STEM fields.

"They're making those choices [about math and science courses] at 13, 14, and 15 years old," said Paige Rasid, the marketing and operations manager for the Connecticut Technology Council. "That really does determine what their life will look like as they finish up college."

The council, which recognizes "Women of Innovation" in the field each year, launched a "Girls of Innovation" program in January.

Rasid said the program will pair up businesswomen mentors with middle school girls and will launch the state's first all-girl robotics team.

The GO-GIRL program, which stands for Gaining Options: Girls Investigate Real Life, meets Saturdays, when about 20 girls gather at the college to pore over statistics, extract DNA from fruit and conduct other science experiences.

The program is already underway in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington. Pamela Trotman Reid, the president of St. Joseph College, helped develop the program when she worked at the University of Michigan.

Connecticut also has recently joined the National Girls Collaborative Project, a clearinghouse for information about STEM programs for girls.

Last week, Central Connecticut State University hosted its first Girls in Technology expo, a daylong program organized each year by the Connecticut Women's Education and Legal Fund at several colleges across the state.

Aleyah Seabrook, a seventh-grader at Capitol Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, was one of about 100 girls who attended the expo. Students made rubber band cars, learned about bicycle gears and used computer animation programs to create short movies.

Aleyah already knows she wants to be a forensic scientist, and she has paired with a female mentor to help her prepare for college.

"I feel like it's harder [for women]," Aleyah said. "It's more of a man's world than a woman's world."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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