Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts takes its STEM programs for girls to the next level

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The Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts is an IF/THEN Gender Equity Grant recipient. Twenty-six ASTC-member museums received funding to launch projects aimed at increasing the representation of women and gender minorities in STEM across their museums’ content. This grant program is supported by the IF/THEN Initiative, a national effort sponsored by Lyda Hill Philanthropies to inspire young girls to pursue STEM careers while creating a culture shift in how the world perceives women in STEM.

Diversity in the workforce is a driver for innovation and keeps organizations competitive.1 Yet women make up only 29% of the workforce in science and engineering fields across the United States.2 Think of all the discoveries, innovations, and scientific contributions that are missed every day simply because women are not equally represented in STEM fields.

For this to change, we need to help young girls build confidence in their STEM-related abilities and visualize STEM careers. Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has offered equity-driven science, technology, engineering, and mathematics activities through our Girls in STEM Initiative since 2014, serving over 3,272 girls in Central Pennsylvania. This initiative offers girls in grades 4-12 the opportunity to engage in hands-on, educator-guided activities and challenges covering topics such as coding, kitchen chemistry, architecture, and physics.

With the support of ASTC’s IF/THEN Gender Equity Grant Program, Whitaker Center is taking the Girls in STEM initiative to the next level by offering new and enhanced programs that can meet the needs of a wider audience. Grant activities include Talks with Docs and the Girls in STEM Summer Camp.

In partnership with Penn State Health and Penn State College of Medicine, Talks with Docs offers young women in high school the opportunity to explore the education and career paths of women healthcare professionals. This free, virtual event makes STEM engagement accessible to students from underserved backgrounds and those whose engagement opportunities have been limited by social distancing. Our June 2020 program reached registration capacity (95 attendees) within three weeks and featured an hour and a half long conversation with Dr. Tiffany Fisher, a neuroscientist at Penn State Health. Participants heard Dr. Fisher’s personal stories of exploring different career paths throughout her education and were able to ask questions about their own career goals. A survey found that since participating in this program, 100% of participants were interested in learning more about healthcare careers and 89% had grown their awareness of women in science careers. Our second program is scheduled for September 2020.

Girls in STEM Summer Camp is a program that was revitalized by incorporating diverse women role models from the IF/THEN Collection—a digital library housing photos, videos, and other media of women in STEM fields—in order to eliminate stereotypes surrounding STEM fields and people in STEM careers. Each day of the camp, which served 77 girls in grades 4-8 over two weeks this past summer, featured curricula on different STEM topics, including biology, engineering, natural disasters, and making for the community. The campers worked in small groups to explore the IF/THEN Ambassadors in the Collection, finding role models they connected with, and learning about the Ambassadors’ work. They also had the opportunity to listen to daily guest speakers over Zoom. Participants shared their enthusiasm for the program, especially their time spent individually exploring the profiles of women featured in the IF/THEN Collection and learning about the vast array of STEM careers.

Without programs that help engage and empower young women, it can be too easy to fall off an educational cliff and hard to get back on track. Programs that encourage young women and eliminate stereotypes surrounding STEM careers are vital to fostering a life-long interest in STEM. These programs provide young women with the tools they need to succeed in their education and future careers and, ultimately benefits our entire community. We are grateful to ASTC and Lyda Hill Philanthropies for the chance to expand our program offerings and promote positive imagery of STEM role models in our community.

1 Stuart R. Levine, “Diversity Confirmed To Boost Innovation And Financial Results,” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, January 15, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesinsights/2020/01/15/diversity-confirmed-to-boost-innovation-and-financial-results/#21118987c4a6.

2 National Science Foundation, “U.S. S&E Workforce,” The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2020 (January 2020): p. 6.

This post was contributed by Jessica Rice, Director of Education, and Kelly Henderson, Volunteer and Development Manager, at Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts.

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