In Peter Balyta's unique role as president of Education Technology and vice president of academic engagement and corporate citizenship, he interacts with students and educators at all levels. In this ongoing series of "Inspire STEM" articles, Peter talks about how we all can help students get involved in science, technology, engineering and math.Meet Quynh-Anh Dang: university biochemistry student, former Girl Scout and current Girl Scout ambassador, organizer of a STEM fair for under-served elementary students, identical twin. One of her role models is 19th-century STEM trailblazer Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first woman to graduate with a medical degree.“Elizabeth Blackwell was turned down by almost all of the medical schools, and she had to work hard to prove herself in what was then a males-only field,” Quynh-Anh said. “She had to have had the strongest motivation to do that. I wrote a book report about her in the fifth grade, and her story still sticks with me. She inspired me to find a project or cause that motivates me, to forget about all the stereotypes and my own fears, and to just go for it.”Quynh-Anh is definitely going for it and has found her passion in the study of genetics. She is an identical twin – her sister, Quynh-Chi, is also a freshman biochemistry student at Southern Methodist University – and a high-school biology teacher opened her eyes to the genetic marvel of twins.“When my teacher explained that my sister and I are the closest genetic match of any other two people in the world, and how the DNA of identical twins is formed through random mutations, it blew my mind,” Quynh-Anh said. “This had such personal relevance to me, and I decided to study bio-chemistry to learn more about myself.”Closing the gapThere are lots of opportunities to improve gender diversity in STEM careers for women such as Quynh-Anh. Consider the statistics: Women – who comprise half of the overall workforce in the U.S. – account for only 25 percent of computer and mathematical roles and 14 percent of engineering roles.1 While the statistics for social sciences (62 percent) and biological and life sciences (48 percent) are better,2 the road to STEM equality continues to be long.Attracting and retaining more women to be scientists, engineers, mathematicians and doctors will mean more innovation and creativity to solve some of the most difficult challenges of our time. One answer to narrowing the STEM gender gap lies somewhere between the right combination of introducing girls to math and science at an early age and in developing their self-confidence. Building confidenceFor the past year, I’ve gotten to know more about the great work that Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas (GSNETX) is doing to ensure that girls have every chance of becoming the next generation of scientists, engineers, innovators and leaders. Jennifer Bartkowski, the chief executive officer of GSNETX, is leading the charge to change the way girls identify with and engage in math and science. Her work, and the work of the Girl Scouts organization overall, is critically important. In Texas alone, 67 percent of eighth-grade girls are not proficient in math.3 We can’t let girls back away from taking challenging math and science classes. “We’re finding that girls are opting out of hard math and science classes, and that gap in confidence is what Girl Scouts is poised to correct,” Jennifer recently told hundreds of teachers during our company’s T3 International Conference in San Antonio. “I’d like all girls to reach their full potential, to have the skills to lead their own lives and to have every door open to them so that they can make the choices they want to make. Allowing girls to lead, to make choices, to solve real-world problems and explore solutions gives a girl-led approach that empowers them to take risks, to have confidence, to persist and to be resilient. These are all leadership components needed for STEM professionals.”Jennifer often says that girls can’t be what they can’t see and that we need to show them women who are succeeding in STEM careers. I couldn’t agree more, and so does Quynh-Anh, who is a former member of Troop 434 and a Gold Award Girl Scout for the work she did in high school to organize a STEM fair for an under-served elementary school in her area. She continues to be active in Girl Scouts as an ambassador. “Being a Girl Scout provided me exposure to all different fields of STEM and shaped my perception about what a career in STEM could be like,” she said. “We took field trips to places like the Frontiers of Flight museum, where we learned about aviation, and to the Dallas Zoo, where we talked to zookeepers and learned about zoology. Girl Scouts also fostered mentorship and collaboration between troop members, and I developed lifelong friendships. It also provided an environment where I wasn’t afraid to ask questions and where I was never told, ‘You can’t do that because you’re a girl.’ We must surround girls with support and to find answers to questions.” Join the questThanks to fearless women such as Quynh-Anh Dang and Jennifer Bartkowski – and Elizabeth Blackwell before them – progress has been made slowly but surely to bring gender diversity into the STEM workplace. But there is so much more to be done. Here’s my challenge to you: Join the quest to prepare girls for a lifetime of leadership by getting involved. Whether volunteering in an ongoing capacity or for a one-time event, by working directly with girls or by making an impact at a council level, Girl Scouts has a volunteer opportunity for everyone. In the Dallas area, learn more at the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas volunteer resource page or visit your local community’s Girl Scout website. There are also many other volunteer opportunities available, including Girls Inc. and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Your local United Way is also a terrific resource. If girls don’t possess a strong sense of self, the ability to think critically and problem-solve, to understand how to manage conflict, or to advocate for themselves, then their likelihood of entering and remaining in a STEM career declines greatly. Let’s work together to help girls think like scientists, mathematicians, doctors or engineers and make the STEM gender gap a challenge of the past.Are you passionate about STEM? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2017 report2National Girls Collaborative Project, State of Girls and Women in STEM
3 The State of Girls: Emerging Truths and Troubling Trends, 2017, Girl Scout Research Institute Report
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