From her experience, being a STEM student back when boys mostly studied science, technology, engineering and math — and then earning undergrad and master's degrees in engineering and working for a biotech company — Sarah Foster sees more girls breaking through stereotypes and taking on such high academic and professional endeavors.
Through her Portland nonprofit STEM Like A Girl, which has now led to a book of the same title, Foster has been doing her part to teach and hopefully inspire girls to study science, technology, engineering and math.
"It's definitely changing," said Foster, 41, of Southwest Portland. "It's shifting."
Foster studied at Bucknell University for her bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and at Boston University for her master's in biomedical engineering. She worked as a research and development engineer for a biotech company for many years before turning to educating youth, girls and families, eventually starting STEM Like A Girl.
"I was always good and interested in math and science and teachers would say, 'You should be a doctor or a science teacher.' So, I went to college thinking I'd be pre-med and become a doctor," she said. "I started taking classes, and realized it wasn't what I wanted to do or what I was interested in. My advisor said, 'Had you thought about engineering?' I hadn't because nobody mentioned it to me as an option. I looked into it, and found my niche."
Her chemical engineering classes would have about two-thirds men, but "I never felt singled out as being a woman. Traditionally, chemical and biological engineering have higher female ratios, but electrical and mechanical engineering and computer science tend to still be more male dominated."
Times could be changing. Since 2017, Foster's STEM Like A Girl has worked with about 200 girls ages 8-12 (third- to fifth-graders) through workshops to spark interest in STEM. The next two will be Oct. 16 and Nov. 14, virtually. See http://www.stemlikeagirl.org.
And, her book "STEM Like A Girl: Empowering Knowledge and Confidence to Lead, Innovate and Create," comes out Sept. 14 through Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. The book tells the testimonials of scores of girls, including about 20 from the Portland area, who have shown interest in STEM fields, and it includes at-home projects for readers.
"The goal with STEM Like A Girl is to catch them at that early age group where they are trying hard things, taking chances and not afraid of failure," Foster said. "And, whether they go into STEM or not, that's a lesson we need to teach early on.
"We don't expect every girl to become a scientist or engineer. But, problem-solving skills you learn from STEM activities can translate into other fields. You learn to be a leader, working through challenging processes. We're giving them tools to be problem-solvers."
Parents, aunts, grandparents and other relatives have been involved with the girls in the workshops.
"This age is so fun because they're so expressive," Foster said. "If they're having fun, they'll show you, jump up and down and be excited about it. You see the joy on faces when they're getting something to work."
The girls have made fizzy bath bombs, while volunteers explain what's happening with the fizzy and smells of lavender and orange as a real-life application.
In a design challenge, they have done "Helping Hands" — given a bag of supplies that looks like junk (straws, pipe cleaners, craft sticks, clothes pins) and they have to make a prosthetic arm that can pick up a cup and set it back down.
"It doesn't always work and you have to redesign," Foster said. "And, we talk about real-life application, why it's important and why engineers work on these things."
Foster, who has two boys, said the girls in her workshops have shown interest in creative building projects, some which combine art and creativity. A "Windy Art" project has also been popular, in which they design a sculpture that doesn't move in wind; it's called kinetic sculpture. They also like the science side of things; a workshop once entailed DNA isolation, in which they collected, isolated and view DNA from inside their mouth.
Any guesses on how many girls end up taking on and being successful in STEM fields?
"I've heard from families that girls are taking classes in middle school or they've reached out to other STEM organizations," Foster said. "I'm excited to be able to follow up with them, about where they're going to college and what they're studying and what they ultimately go into."
More girls are needed in STEM fields, and studying STEM can be empowering.
"It allows them to open up more when in a room full of other girls," Foster said. "And, they aren't competing or feeling intimidated having boys in the room with them. They're putting themselves out there."
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