If Delaware hopes to compete in science and math-related areas, it will need more Adrienne Johnsons and Rebecca Gillies.
The Middletown High School seniors like math and science courses and still find time to stay active in extracurricular activities.
Gillie, who plans to pursue a career as an engineer and scientist, comes from a family where both parents have science degrees and maintain a strong interest in the field.
“They share their knowledge with my siblings and me and encourage us. We follow news from the scientific community and discuss it,” she says. In addition to her interest in science, Gillie is a Middletown High School band member who also performs in school musicals.
Johnson credits her aunt, a veterinarian, with sparking her interest in science and medicine.
“Although I no longer want to be a veterinarian like my aunt, she was my greatest influence on choosing a career in science,” says Johnson, who has played varsity soccer since her freshman year and is now involved in student government. Her career goal is to become an anesthesiologist.
She also has built-in help when stumped. “My father is a math teacher at Mount Pleasant High School, so I could always go to him if I need help,” she says.
Though female students from families with such backgrounds are not rare in a state with a number of science-based organizations, education, government and businesses still face a major challenge.
Delaware officials are seeing weak performance in STEM classes (science technology, engineering and math), with females posting lower test scores than males.
Delaware and the nation also seem to be facing an enthusiasm gap when it comes to females pursuing STEM-related education and careers.
As Converge magazine noted in a story earlier this year, figures from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate the number of females earning bachelor’s degrees in computer science peaked at around 15,000 in the mid-1980s, but dropped to around 7,100 in 2010. The number of females earning master’s degrees in that specialty doubled to about 4,900 during the same period.
The lack of female STEM graduates could translate into fewer chances for female STEM stars, like DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman, Facebook COO Sherry Sandberg and Marissa Meyer, a math whiz and veteran of Google who last summer became the chief executive of troubled online pioneer Yahoo.
Turning around the situation has become a top priority. In 2011 the Delaware STEM Council was formed by Gov. Jack Markell to address the issue.
Serving as a co-chair is Ted Kaufman, one of the few engineers to serve in the U.S. Senate. Kaufman used the brief stint in the legislative body to champion science and math as he served out the term of his former boss, Vice President Joe Biden.
The council issued its first report earlier this year amid growing concern about the performance of students in science and math studies.
“In releasing this report, we take a clear-eyed look at STEM education in our public schools, and we set out an aggressive agenda for improving it,” Kaufman writes in the report. “Our ultimate goal is to create a seamless Pre-K through higher education STEM system so that our students have every opportunity to succeed, and provide the workforce to attract STEM businesses to Delaware.”
A subcommittee recommended that the council “work with other committees and the Delaware Department of Education to increase professional development for all school personnel.” That includes “combating negative stereotypes about women and minorities in STEM and showing students that by pursuing STEM careers they can make a positive difference in the community.”
Another recommendation is to create a STEM speakers bureau to connect students to STEM role models.
One outreach effort, now into its second year, is DigiGirlz, a one-day event to motivate eighth- and ninth-graders to pursue careers in STEM.
Middletown student Johnson says greater awareness would not be a bad thing. She notes that she was not aware of the term STEM until a year ago. Johnson goes on to suggest that more scholarships in STEM areas would point more students in the direction of math- and science-based careers.
The STEM Council took note of the achievement gap that includes females.
Fifty-eight percent of males who took a STEM Advanced Placement exam in 2010 passed it, but only 47 percent of female students passed.
In addition, when compared to neighboring states in the Middle States region, Delaware ranks near the bottom in passing advanced placement STEM examinations for “students overall and female and African-American students in particular.”
Kate Scantlebury, a chemistry and biochemistry professor and director of secondary education in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Delaware, says another issue centers on attitude.
“Attitudes toward science decline for males and females as they remain in school. However, the decline is greater for girls than for boys,” she says.
Also, when girls study science, it may be a goal other than a STEM career. Scantlebury points to one piece of research that indicates a group of female students studying physics did so to improve their college applications, but actually had little interest in the subject.
Gillie also sees a lack of understanding of the role of science and math.
“Some students enjoy science and math courses, while others find them to be too challenging, or boring,” she says. “Many don’t like the courses because you have to get the right answer and have correct work to back it up. Some don’t understand how the math is applicable to their life or care how the science works.”
At least one Delaware vocational-technical school district is seeing encouraging signs that the situation is changing.
“We do see increasing numbers of females in STEM-related programs and in higher-level science and math offerings. Females generally have achieved as high as, or higher, than their male classmates in these areas,” says Kevin Dickerson, director of support services for the Sussex Technical School District.
Dickerson says the district is not seeing peer pressure influencing female enrollment in math and science courses. According to Dickerson, peer pressure sometimes plays a role in the selection of a major, though signs point to a decrease in that tendency.
At Sussex Tech, all students complete a pathway major and a senior project as part of their graduation requirements. Students develop a success plan that allows an exploration of careers and education after graduation.
The technical high school districts in each of the state’s three counties offer a number of science-based concentrations for students. The state’s newest technical high school, St. Georges in southern New Castle County, offers a biotechnology major.
The shortage of females pursuing STEM-related careers has been a concern for years at science-based employers.
DuPont Co. is active on a number of fronts, both in Delaware and around the world. Kullman champions STEM efforts on a state and national level and even earned a STEM Women All Star designation, complete with a trading card. It’s part of a national effort to attract women to science and math-centered careers.
In January Kullman was joined by Facebook executive Sandberg in presenting an education section of a report to the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitivenes.
“Companies are struggling to fill available jobs with skilled workers even while Americans are unemployed. We can and must ensure we provide our citizens the education and skills to compete in the global economy and ensure U.S. companies have a skilled workforce. In this report we lay out a roadmap for excellence,” Kullman told President Barack Obama and members of the council.
She also said the “recommendations span from preschool through universities and community colleges and call on the private sector, government at all levels and the public to work together to address this critical need.”
DuPont’s research history shows the value of attracting more females into STEM-related areas.
A towering figure at the company is Stephanie Kwolek, who discovered DuPont’s blockbuster product Kevlar at the company’s Experimental Station near Wilmington more than four decades ago.
The strong, lightweight material is best known for protecting law enforcement officers from bullets, but it has also made its way into smartphones, lightweight armor for vehicles and passenger jets.
Essential in the effort are female teachers. Scantlebury, of the University of Delaware, says progress is being made in attracting more women science and math teachers who have the potential to inspire girls and push them toward STEM careers.
With the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, UD operates Project Smart, an initiative that works to identify potential science and math teachers.
Aspiring teachers get the opportunity to work with teachers in STEM-related subjects and participate in research projects.
Delaware State University offers the Science and Math Initiative for Learning Enrichment (SMILE). The DSU program features new student orientation for STEM majors and a STEM training camp, as well as peer mentors and peer leaders. The program also offers the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research.
The work at a state level continued last summer when more than 400 elementary, middle and high school teachers, administrators and business leaders were on hand for the first STEM Institute in Delaware.
Sponsored by the Delaware Department of Education in partnership with the Delaware Science Coalition, the event at Clayton Hall featured workshops and other events aimed at better preparing students for college and STEM careers.
Nationally, there has been concern over shortages of science and math teachers of either genders. Scantlebury says some parts of the country are doing better than others when it comes to finding teachers.
Delaware has taken steps to ease a long-running problem of school districts not being able to hire new teachers in STEM and other areas until the state budget was approved in late June. That aided neighboring states with fewer restrictions. Local districts can now hire earlier in the year through the use of funding estimates.
Not always a part of the conversation on STEM is the role of private schools in easing gender and ethnic gaps.
National data is sketchy, though past reports have shown higher achievement levels at private schools, a driving force for many parents willing to pay tuition.
In the meantime, enrollment in Delaware private schools peaked at 33,000 in 2003, but fell to 26,600 during the difficult economic year of 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
During that period, the state reported growing enrollment in charter schools, which get public funding for operating expenses but have more flexibility than their public counterparts in curriculum, teacher hiring and other areas.
Charter School of Wilmington, in particular, has focused on attracting students with skills and motivation in pursuing STEM-based education.