Forming a STEM identity
To Southwest Portland resident Sarah Foster, the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields can largely be explained in one word — identity.
Foster says boys are taught at a young age to value these pursuits, while girls are steered in other directions. The result is that by the time they've reached high school — or even as early as middle school — girls identify themselves as "bad at math and science," while boys take pride in mastering these subjects.
So while several organizations encourage older girls and young women to consider STEM, Foster wants to address STEM identity at its root — in elementary school.
"I wanted to have a program that targeted an earlier age to get them interested in STEM and show girls that they can be good at it," Foster said, "and also show them the different career paths and things they can do as a scientist or engineer."
Foster launched the STEM Like A Girl program, which provides lessons and workshops to elementary-age girls and hopes to inspire them to enjoy STEM and consider STEM professions, which are increasingly prevalent in the modern economy and typically garner substantial incomes.
Foster founded STEM Like A Girl in 2017 and brought on board four other directors. She has since visited classrooms in the area to talk about STEM and will also hold a workshop at Multnomah Arts Center on Sunday, June 24. (The event costs $25 per child; for more information, visit stemlikeagirl.org.)
Foster says she was keenly interested in math and science growing up. But possibly due to perceived gender norms, teachers and mentors encouraged her toward a career in medicine or education. It wasn't until she attended college that she realized she was more interested in engineering.
Foster earned an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and a master's in medical engineering before working in the biotechnology field. Eventually, she decided to quit her job to raise her two kids.
"It was a hard choice," Foster said. "I'm glad I did stay home and now have this other opportunity. I'm not using my background in a traditional sense anymore, but I'm looking to help train the next generation of female STEM professionals. I love that I can use my background to help other girls."
Foster gleaned the idea for STEM Like A Girl while facilitating a science project at Hayhurst Elementary School, where her son is currently a student. There, she noticed an alarming phenomenon — the boys were much more eager and excited to dive into science projects than the girls. She surmised that the girls were already self-selecting out of math and science.
"The girls weren't jumping into the activities as much; they weren't raising their hands as much," she said. "That was eye-opening to me to see a gender gap at such a young age."
She did some research to try to find programs catered toward young girls practicing STEM and only found expensive summer camps. So she decided to build a program of her own.
The upcoming workshop will consist of activities such as training a robot to produce art using a cup, markers, tape, rubber band, a motor, a battery pack and craft sticks; separating colors from a marker using chromatography; and other activities that can be replicated at home and don't require big budgets.
She will also bring in female mentors such as a textile engineer at Nike, an outreach educator at NASA and a civil engineer for the Portland Water Bureau.
"A lot of girls cite a lack of female role models as a reason for not going into a STEM field. I want to show them that there's all these different women doing different things," Foster said.
Along with female mentors, Foster says parent encouragement — or lack thereof —can make or break girls' perception of STEM.
"We want the parents to build confidence. 'I may not be trained as a scientist or an engineer, but I can do these activities with my daughter,'" Foster said. "I want to give parents the tool to help daughters develop their STEM identity."
Eventually, Foster would like to hold workshops more frequently and develop a scholarship fund so that lower-income residents can afford to attend. Foster says women can bring a different perspective than men and STEM fields would benefit from more equal gender representation. She hopes to springboard girls into a bevy of STEM careers.
"We want to be that initial jumping off point to say, 'You can do this,' and try to capture their attention early," Foster said.