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Survey finds drop in girls’ interest in STEM fields

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Molly Turner works on a project during the Twin Counties STEM Design Challenge at the Rocky Mount Event Center.

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BY AMELIA HARPER
Staff Writer

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A new survey conducted by Junior Achievement reveals that girls are losing interest in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — but a local community college professor feels that more can be done to encourage their interest. 

According to the survey, 9 percent of girls between the ages of 13 and 17 are interested in STEM careers, a figure that is down from the 11 percent expressed in a similar survey conducted in 2018. The interest of teen boys in STEM careers increased slightly during the same period from 24 percent in 2018 to 27 percent this year.

“The decline of interest in STEM careers is disappointing given how much emphasis is being placed on promoting STEM to girls,” said Jack Kosakowski, president and CEO of Junior Achievement USA. “One element that may need to be emphasized more is ensuring that STEM professionals are serving as role models and working with girls in educational settings as part of these initiatives.”

A 2009 study from MIT indicates that young people are interested in STEM at an early age but begin to lose interest as they become older due to a lack of interaction with mentors and role models in the STEM fields, according to a press release from Junior Achievement USA.

The survey also indicated that while girls are showing less interest in STEM careers like engineering, robotics and computer science, their interest in careers in the medical and dental fields has increased to 25 percent, up from 19 percent in 2018.

Shilo M. Lawrence, coordinator of Associate in Engineering program at Nash Community college, said that only about 10 percent of the students pursuing an associate in engineering degree at the college are women.

Lawrence said she thinks that student interest in STEM fields in the Twin Counties is rather low for all students and feels that more needs to be done in schools and in the community to foster this interest early.

“I don't think our current K-12 educational system is set up to develop and foster the creative and critical thinking skills required to be successful in a STEM major and career. Unfortunately, educators have no control over this. Our educational policies are dictated by a select group of elites, a vast majority of whom have no experience in the educational field,” Lawrence said.

She also said that poverty in the area plays a factor.

“I encounter students on a daily basis that have to work full-time to help support their family, are the primary caregiver of their younger siblings, do not have access to technology at home and do not have the time and money required to pursue a four to six-year university education,” she said.

These factors likely contribute to more girls pursuing health care fields that don’t require as much training as some other STEM fields, Lawrence said.

“In our current society, as opportunities for women slowly grow, the demands of a woman's traditional role as child-rearer and homemaker have not diminished. Women are having to juggle both or choose to let one of them slide. Health care continues to enjoy a strong job growth outlook for the future. Students can earn a two-year associate degree in nursing and get a job that pays nearly the same amount that most STEM bachelor’s degrees provide,” she said.

Lawrence also said she thinks local companies and industries can do more to encourage girls to take an interest in STEM careers.

“I think it is important for industry to recognize the unique perspectives and important roles that females play in a diverse working environment,” she said. “Companies need to invest in their communities: sponsor or create STEM-related early childhood education opportunities and fund scholarships and internships for women interested in pursuing STEM degrees.

Additionally, companies need to be willing to advance the women that are currently a part of their company to an even playing field with the men, Lawrence said.

“This may require child-care grants, educational assistance in the form of time and money and the willingness to advance deserving women to leadership roles, where they can have more of an impact and be more visible to the younger female generations,” Lawrence said.

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