Reaching the Tipping Point on STEM Interest

by Ursula Towne
Society of Women Engineers - Central Illinois
Above: SWE members Ursula Towne, Christiana Aguirre and Robyn Konen instructing students in optics and homemade telescopes in collaboration with the GEMS Club at the Morton Public Library, a STEM afterschool program.

SWE - CI continues to expand its STEM-related outreach initiatives. 

“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength,” said the poet Maya Angelou. While one can guess at the intended meaning of this quote, I know what it has meant for me. As a woman working in a STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and math) field for many years, I have not witnessed what I assumed would be the rush of a diverse group of young college graduates joining me in my chosen profession. 

As the quote implies, I see this as a weakness. While the percentage of women entering the field of engineering has been stagnant, the demand is ever-growing. As new technical careers pop up all over Illinois, a focus on STEM education is more important than ever for professional organizations like the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) as it broadens its outreach efforts across the globe.  

SWE Central Illinois outreach initiatives have grown substantially in recent years. Forty-five STEM events over the past three years have reached more than 3,000 local students, while collaborative relationships have been developed with a range of area organizations, including the University of Illinois Extension, Girl Scouts of Central Illinois, National Society of Black Engineers, Caterpillar Women’s Initiative Network, Peoria Public Schools, Dream Center Peoria, Bradley University, Illinois Central College and a variety of K-12 educational institutions. These relationships continue to foster new and improved programming for area youth.

As Christopher Napolitano from the University of Illinois College of Education shared from his recent research, career “choice” does not occur just once among young people, and it begins in earnest during adolescence. As they begin to form broad career aspirations, it’s imperative that diverse groups of people with technical careers reach out to our children to build an early impression of the endless, exciting possibilities. This is part of SWE-CI’s mission as we take on new initiatives to be present in grade schools for career-day discussions and other events to engage young children. 

Expanding Community Programming 
A few notable programs are expanding this year with involvement from SWE-CI, including afterschool programming in cooperation with the Dream Center, STEM-related badges with the Girl Scouts of Central Illinois, and the formation of the SWENext Club at Charles Lindbergh Middle School.

Dream Center Peoria created a great opportunity for like-minded groups to offer STEM learning experiences to Peoria Public Schools students. SWE-CI and the University of Illinois Extension’s 4-H Teen Teachers have teamed up to offer a weekly afterschool STEM program. SWE-CI members facilitate an activity focusing on STEM principles such as design, problem solving and efficiency with the 4-H Teen Teachers. The teens then lead the same activity with grade-school students, reinforcing their learning while they simultaneously practice leadership and teamwork. This effort has strengthened the confidence of these young people in technical areas and taught valuable life skills in dealing with relationships and self-worth. 

Girl Scouts of the USA recently launched a series of STEM-related badges. Through the leadership of SWE-CI outreach co-chair Karen Raab and the Dunlap Eagles Robotics Team (DERT), a lesson plan was developed to help Girls Scouts achieve robotics badges. The first effort took place at the Bradley Robotics competition in March 2018, with 60 girls achieving two robotics STEM badges. Due to overwhelming demand, Raab has led 120 more area Girl Scouts in acquiring robotics badges since that first event. 

“The newly released STEM badges help teach girls as young as five years old how to build a robot, code and problem-solve using STEM skills,” states Girl Scouts of Central Illinois CEO Pam Kovacevich. “[The] hands-on curriculum developed around the new STEM badges can be a game-changer for many girls. Research has proven that after participating in Girl Scouts STEM programming, 77 percent of girls are more likely to consider a career in a technology field.” 

SWE-CI has also been working with Charles Lindbergh Middle School to offer lunchtime science sessions through the Adopt-A-School program. Thanks to the efforts of Gina Riley, SWE-CI’s advocacy chair, the Peoria area’s first SWENext Club was launched. While a mentoring program had already been a monthly staple at this school for the last 10 years, SWENext club members are now meeting more frequently to take on even more in-depth experiments—including an agricultural engineering experiment that won a national SWENext monthly challenge. 

“The relationship with the Society of Women Engineers has provided girls with not only the opportunity to engage in STEM activities, but to connect with women from our community who work in various engineering fields,” says Principal Sue Malahy. “As SWE members and students have built relationships, mentors have supported the students in learning about career opportunities they might not have otherwise considered. Even more beneficial is the time spent interacting with women who hold these positions. These relationships allow girls to ask questions to better understand what they do on the job, and the training and education needed for the job.”  

On the Shoulders of Giants
Sir Isaac Newton once paraphrased a quote by the 12th-century philosopher Bernard of Chartres, stating, “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.” Through the efforts of SWE-CI and its current wave of STEM outreach programming—along with passionate volunteers and teachers from many area organizations—we will build up our youth to see further than we have ever seen. 

It is up to us to impress upon young people the importance of diversity and inclusion, and to carry the strength of that harmony into a new technological age. No geographic or economic barrier should stand in the way of a curious child getting a full education that includes quality STEM and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) content which provides them the opportunity to see what they can become.

Through a growing number of open-house events and continued collaboration with local schools and agencies, expanding robotics programs, library groups, afterschool programs, high school internships, resume-writing workshops, STEM bootcamps and more, SWE-CI can help our youth reach the tipping point where a STEM or STEAM career seems possible. iBi

Ursula Towne is co-chair of outreach and president-elect of the Society of Women Engineers – Central Illinois section. For more information, visit centralillinois.swe.org.

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