It’s a well-known fact that women are under represented in science, technology and engineering related jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women hold about 25% of computer- and mathematics-related positions and only 14% of architecture and engineering jobs.
In Charlotte, there’s a summer program called Project Scientist that’s getting girls involved in STEM at an early age. The program provides girls between the ages of four to 12 years old with hands-on classroom experience in the sciences.
Each week a different group of 70 to 80 girls have done things like examining and comparing bacteria on common objects like pens, cell phones and toilet seats. They’ve taken toasters apart and reconstructed them and in one class of second graders, they’re learning about the process and science behind the making of ice cream
A few doors down from them, girls in fifth to eighth grades are taking on a not so tasty project—dissecting the eye of a cow.
“I have cow juice on my hand and it doesn’t feel bad,” seventh-grader Raquel Pearce. “It’s fun. I’ve always loved science and this just makes it funner.”
"It’s nasty,” said 10-year-old Morgan Lang.
“I’m revolted but also very intrigued,” said eighth-rader Rachel Lauderbaugh.
“This morning, they were learning about how the eye works by doing different hands on activities, sorting bottle caps by color in pitch blackness in the room to see how the cones and rods work, cones work more in bright light, rods need dim light and now they will do a dissection to cut it open and actually look at those parts of the eye,” said Kari Stranberg.
Stranberg, a North Carolina site director for Project Scientist and a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools STEM teacher, says the program was founded in Charlotte in 2013 through corporate donations. She says the program has specific goals.
“We are trying to excite and engage girls in STEM with the hopes that eventually they’ll be going into STEM careers,” she said.
Sixth-grader Morgan Lang thinks she wants a career in STEM but it probably won’t be in biology. She’s not enthusiastic about dissecting the cow’s eye.
“It looks nasty,” Lang said. “But I really like science. I take things apart and put them back together. This is my fifth year in the program and it’s fun other than like the dissection.
“You get to see cool things like different body parts and in middle school it will be harder and I’ll need to know more body parts so it helps me out a lot,” Lang said.
Since Project Scientist was founded, it has since expanded to college campuses in California and Minnesota. This year it’s at Johnson and Wales University. More than 2,300 young girls have participated over the years. The summer program costs nearly $500 per week. Stranberg says 40% of the participants receive scholarships and they have a waiting list for those slots. The girls have to go through an application process that includes feedback from their teachers.
“We try to find girls with aptitude and natural curiosity to explore things around them. That’s what you need for Project Scientist because we’re always digging deeper into the how and the why and creating new things to be innovative,” Stranberg said.
As for the curriculum, it is developed in partnership with the National Science Foundation and Project Scientist STEM leaders. In addition to class work, three times a week, women who work in the STEM field come in to talk to the girls. Katie Cipkala, senior manager of cybersecurity for Ingersoll Rand talked to them this week. She says the program is much needed.
“I really think this will make a difference for these girls,” Cipkala said. “Having that encouragement and knowing that these women are coming in from different industries to encourage and talk to them, having the support and keeping them interested, I don’t see how they won’t want to continue that curiosity."
A 2018 study of the program by researchers at UNC Charlotte and Harvard University found that only about 36% of the participants had ever met a female scientist. Those who want a STEM career increased from 40% when the students started to 75%. The report also concluded that the Project Scientist program emphasizes critical skills that instructors present to students in an engaging way.
Not all of the students in the program say they excel in science or like it, such as Northwest School of the Arts rising eighth-grader Rachel Lauderbaugh and second-year participant Ella Smith.
“I’m really bad at science unless it’s a hands on experience,” Lauderbaugh said. “Our school doesn’t do a lot of hands on experiments like we do here so it helps me a lot to understand what I need to be understand in science.”
“I didn’t really want to come again,” Smith said. “I don’t enjoy science that much. I mostly like art, reading and math.”
After spending two years in the program, Smith said, “I don’t like it much better.”
Although Ashley Rivas doesn’t know if she wants a career in the sciences or legal field, she says Project Scientist has helped build her confidence—a major goal of the program.
“I thought I’d hate it, that it would be scary but it pushed me out of my comfort zone to make friends with strangers,” Rivas said. “I’m normally very shy and I have all these friends now and incredible teachers who helped me a lot.”
“The biggest impact long term is the girls building confidence in themselves so when they get in a male-dominated work place they will have confidence to take risks, solve problems, speak up for themselves,” Stranberg said.
Stranberg says they plan to track the girls by encouraging them to participate in some of their year-round field trips. They want all of them to leave the program not feeling intimidated by the sciences. She hopes they will share that mindset with classmates not in the program—a small step in closing the women in STEM gap.