500 girls explore STEM careers at Washington University

STEM education offers 'a cafeteria of options and opportunities,' Schaal tells students

About 500 seventh-grade girls from across Missouri visited Washington University to learn about STEM careers. Here, students learn how to collect forensic evidence from a crash scene. (Photos: Myra Lopez/Institute for School Partnership)

The science is clear: girls think boys are better at science. That’s wrong, of course. Still, subtle and not-so-subtle messages from parents, teachers and the media lead girls to doubt their abilities. The result: enormous gender gaps in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. 

Army Ants, a FIRST Robotics Competition team from Columbia, Mo., was among the many organizations at the ISP-sponsored event.

“By the time they reach middle school, many girls believe some subjects are just too hard,” said Victoria May, executive director of the Institute for School Partnership (ISP) at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert in STEM education. “They lose out, because STEM jobs can be enormously rewarding and well paying. And we, as a society, lose out. If we are to address 21st-century problems, we need a new generation of resilient and creative problem-solvers.”

To inspire that new generation, Washington University and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education hosted 500 seventh-grade girls from across the state March 15 for a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) event. The students explored STEM careers with businesses, nonprofit organizations and health-care providers, learned about life on a college campus from female Washington University students and heard from Rising Tycoons CEO Olenka Cullinan. They also rotated through a number of STEM workshops, including building a bridge with a Missouri Department of Transportation engineer; using an electroencephalogram, which tests electrical activity in the brain, with a St. Louis Children’s Hospital specialist; and studying ways the ancient Greeks used science and math with a Washington University classics professor.

“There are so many things you can do,” Barbara Schaal, dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences and an acclaimed scientist, told the girls during the event’s opening. “People think when they go into STEM they have to be a professor or they have to be a scientist at a laboratory bench. But my own students have gone into industry, NGOs, education. Some work for the government, some are entrepreneurs. What STEM education does is give you a cafeteria of options and opportunities.”

Hannah Warfel, a student at Festus Middle School, left the event sold on a career in science and especially liked the presentation about physical therapy by BJC HealthCare physical therapist Katherine Meirink. Physical therapy, Meirink told the girls, is one of the fastest-growing and most-rewarding careers in the nation.

“It is so cool to help people every day and see their progress,” Meirink told Warfel and her classmates. “But it also requires preparation and education. When you’re in high school memorizing physics formulas, you may wonder, ‘Why do I need to know this?’ As a rehabilitation scientist, I use those concepts all of the time.”

After the session, Warfel asked Meirink to write down what classes she should take in high school. Meirink jotted down chemistry, biology, physics, geometry, trigonometry and anatomy. 

“That’s a lot,” Warfel said, reviewing the list. “But I can do it.” 

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