Steering Girls to Science and Tech Careers

| January 6, 2012 | 12 Comments
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Middle-school students learn how to solder in an after-school science program.

For Ebony Green, a career as a scientist might have seemed unlikely just last year.

The stereotypical outcome for girls like Ebony, an eighth-grader at Frick Middle School in a rough part of East Oakland, isn’t necessarily a high-paying job in science, math, engineering or technology. In fact, 40 percent of Oakland Unified School District students drop out.

Still, despite her surroundings and the legacy of her race, gender, family background, and income bracket, Ebony sees a different future for herself. She wants to be a pediatrician, or maybe a vet, and she’s starting to take steps to get there.

Last fall, without her mother knowing, Ebony enrolled herself in Techbridge, an after-school science and math program geared specifically to girls. She signed up for math tutoring at school because she’s struggling in the subject. And her science teacher, Ken Eastman, says she even came to his science class twice a day for a while.

“Once these girls get that satisfaction from knowing they can do something that most adults don’t know how to do, that knowledge in itself is so empowering.”

Ebony’s interest in science stands in contrast to the reality of women working in STEM fields. Although women make up half the country’s work force, they comprise less than 25 percent ofSTEM-related jobs, according to a Department of Commerce report from last year.

Apart from the overall problem of cutting out hands-on science projects and tinkering in schools, the issue is even more pointed when it comes to girls. A recent study called “Why So Few” shows that only 20 percent of bachelors degrees in STEM fields go to girls.

Thirteen-year-old Ebony Green has hopes for a career in science.

But Techbridge is showing Ebony an alternate future. Once a week, she and 20 other girls voluntarily stay after school from 3 to 5 p.m. to get their hands on soldering irons and protractors to make things like LED-lit sculptures and catapults. Beyond teaching these girls those specific skills, Techbridge is giving them something much more.

“It’s interesting to me,” Ebony says. “Because some things that I didn’t believe, I believe in now. I never knew about soldering, or I never knew about crystals or anything like that and since I’m interested in that I wanted to get into a program where it’s a lot about it.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF ROLE MODELS

One thing research consistently shows is the impact that one-on-one relationships and role models can have in influencing kids. And that’s one of the defined goals of the Techbridge program.

To that end, Ebony and her peers get to work once a week with Esosa Ozigbo, who comes from a similar background as many of the girls in the program — single-parent home, struggling financially, parents who never graduated from high school. But Ozigbo, a Stanford graduate with a science degree, is living proof that there’s a way out – and it might just be in a field like science or math.

“I definitely know that growing up, it would have been great to have someone like that come in and talk to me,” Ozigbo says.

Ozigbo leads Techbridge field trips, taking girls to companies like Google and Yahoo for site visits so they see for themselves the possibility of a life that’s different than what they’ve lived so far.

Read more about Oakland Unified School District’s plans to address the dropout problem in this interview with Superintendent Tony Smith.

“I took some girls to San Francisco, they had never been on the other side of the bay,” she says. “It’s just about seeing what’s out there and seeing if it’s in your grasp and saying, This is what I have to do, this is what I can do. I think that makes the world of a difference.”

Though they only meet once a week, Ozigbo makes sure to connect personally with the girls. Sometimes she takes Ebony home after, and they have a chance to talk about what’s going on.

“Even in that short time, we’re going to reach them all, we talk, we laugh, we joke about things like guys and stuff like that,” she says. “We tell them to always stand up for what you believe in, we do shout-outs to the girls who get up so they learn how to be comfortable when speaking in a crowd. It’s little but I’m hoping that those little different things will make a big difference in the end.”

Claude Steele thinks it will. Steele is the author of Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us and the dean for the School of Education at Stanford University.

“What those girls will see from that kind of a program is that women do succeed in these fields, that role model strategy is a really effective one,” Steele says. “It’s the existence proof idea, the stereotype may be out there, but look, there’s a woman who is succeeding and that means it’s possible for me to succeed and, and it starts to reduce the sense that I would worry about being seen stereotypically.”

Teacher Esosa Ozigbo, far left, jokes with students, cheering them on when projects are complete.

Tasha Bergson-Michelson, a search expert at Google, is one of the women that Techbridge girls get to meet. Last month, a group of girls from Montera Middle School in Oakland were brought to Google to learn some important tips in using the site to conduct research – whether it’s simply for curiosity or for a school project.

“I believe that access to information is one of the greatest equalizing forces,” Bergson-Michelson said. “Knowing how to find information, evaluate it, and use it appropriately is one of the ways we see a divergence among people who have access to education and those who don’t. “

Bergson-Michelson hopes that her time with the Techbridge girls will show that her route could also be theirs. “I want them to know that whatever path they choose to take, they have the power to, by experimentation and by engaging with our world and thinking creatively to learn a great deal about these technologies they use every day and become more powerful,” she says. “How could you possibly get a job at Google if you didn’t start with a dream?”

The fact that Ebony shows up to Techbridge week after week on her own volition is an encouraging sign to Ozigbo.

“She’s coming every week, finding some sort of acceptance or community or fun in here,” she says. “Once these girls get that satisfaction from completing that kit, or making that soldering ornament and knowing they can do something that most people aren’t given the chance to do, that most adults don’t know how to do or don’t know about, that knowledge in itself is so empowering and can really take them places.”

As part of the PBS American Graduate Program, I produced a segment for the PBS NewsHour on Ebony Green and Techbridge with correspondent Spencer Michels. Here’s the segment:

Watch Oakland Program Aims to Pique Girls’ Interest in Science, Tech Careers on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_R3UKF26DJV54OLUQ5O7XRDXOXE Steve

    How come we never here about steering men to Secondary Education, Nursing or Child Care Workers?

    Oh, thats right.  The people pushing this sort of stuff don’t care about men.

    • Gunther L

      “hear” bro.  Maybe you should not go into teaching. 

      • christopher boitano

        Hahaha

      • Sokrates90

        Gunther, how many points do you take off for spelling?  Maybe you need a set of “Getting the Main Idea” booklets like the ones I used to learn reading comprehension in the fourth grade, since you obviously couldn’t decipher (look it up) the thesis of Steve’s post.  I also see a problem when society appears to favor one group over another based on membership in a non-merit based class.   Before you start with past oppression arguments, I assert that the current condition is an unwise overreaction to past oppression, which only serves to validate the use of unfair tactics to achieve the goals of the power elite.  The best antidote to corruption is fairness, not compensatory corruption.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Z7EYOKEENABAP5TEUKK4J52GNI Jenna Nation

    Steve,

    If a man wants to volunteer to go down and teach boys about those sorts of things, I’m sure he’d be welcome to. This is about a  woman from a similar background as these young girls who chose to give her time and energy for this program. This was set up a particular group. It seems like every time there is something about women helping other women, there’s some angry man upset that they’re not doing it for boys. I agree someone should help specifically help boys, so where are these men at? If you’re that concerned, go volunteer. It’s not some great feminist conspiracy theory to destroy men, it’s a lack of men who will go and do something for boys. People do care about boys, but especially as teenagers who are developing in young men, they need positive male influence, and that’s not really something women can provide. So it’s not this program’s fault, it’s not women’s fault, it’s not the children’s fault, and it’s not a “lack of care” about little boys. It’s a lack of positive male influences, and there’s no way you can shift that blame to women.

  • Padadfgasfija

    Steve, you’re an idiot, and you don’t understand the point of the article.

  • M Broihier

    It’s far past the time to give girls and women the chance and choice that men have enjoyed for a thousand years.  Long ago people revered women and their innate knowledge of the earth and life.  Then women were killed for that very knowledge.  It is high time to take back our power, our right to live fully in our own world.  I am so very happy for these girls.  IT is an exciting time and the entire world will benefit.

  • julianpenrod

    So often, important, even crucial, facets of an issue are exposed, but in a manner that is viewed by many if not most as tangential. And so they escape notice.
    Consider, for example, the very title of this article, “Steering Girls to Science and Tech Careers”. Supposedly, the import of the article is to allow girls’ natural abilities to be released and expressed. But “steering” something suggests directing it in a path it would not normally, of its own inclination, go! The very title connotes a program to give an impression of female overall interest in the hard sciences, even though it wouldn’t necessarily, on its own, exist. In other words, a fraud.
    And M Broihier’s comment can indicate much of what made many less than sanguine about what was called the “women’s lib” movement. Among other things, the representation of all men as brutal beasts who beat women, whio know everything, into submission. Carefully ignored is the issue of why women supposedly were held in higher esteem in earlier times, when hunting was more practiced, but, when more mannered cities came into vogue, suddenly, the women were overcome. And would not the withholding of sex, as in the play Lysistrata, not have achieved some success? But, then, what success is M Broihier looking for when they opine about women living fully in “our own world”? They condemn men not sharing the world but then want the women to assume complete control.

  • Gunther L

    Dang steve, can you not do any research to find out if there are articles/programs that steer men to secondary teaching, nursing, etc? Quick look on the web I found this for ya.  Does this mean you want to help out?  Cool.  Looking to see you helping out the community.

    http://www.nursezone.com/nursing-news-events/more-news/Efforts-to-Draw-Men-to-Nursing-Increase-across-the-Nation_27054.aspx

    http://www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2008/11/18/hunt_is_on_for_more_men_to_lead_classrooms/?page=full

    http://www.menteach.org/news/living_in_a_manny_state_male_childcare_workers

  • Anonymous

    Christ, girls are already kicking our asses 4 to 1 in college.
    …the fuck more help do they need? 

  • JackS

    Great article! I’ll put it on my school’s Edline page. I used to teach at an IT magnet school that was located in a poor section of our county. Every student at that 87% minority school got to design web pages, learn the Microsoft office applications, program in the Alice or C++ language, and so forth. It’s a great program we have here in our county. I now teach Computer Science in a public high school. Two of the girls I have taught for two years now were selected for a Women in Computing national award. When I left software engineering seven years ago, after having worked in a number of companies, the software engineering groups in those companies consisted of very few women and African Americans and Hispanics. That always bothered me while working there. While we have far more boys than girls taking our college-level computer science classes here, we are getting more and more girls and minorities. Thanks to TechBridge and the employess at Google and Yahoo that support this program. And good luck to you Ebony!

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.r.jones Laura Reasoner Jones

    I have been doing this since 1994 with my GEMS clubs (GIrls Excelling in Math and Sceince.) It is essential that we keep working on this. www.gemsclub.org