Although women who pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers face daily instances of sexism and exclusion, there is a growing community of accomplished women who are encouraging young girls to pursue their scientific interests.
On Nov. 9, UCSB’s Women in Science and Engineering Club (WiSE) hosted their fourth annual I HEART STEM conference. The club invited girls from 25 local high schools to attend the $10 event, where they rotated through five to six workshops highlighting different possible career paths and topics in STEM.
In an interview with The Bottom Line, Jenny, one of the organizers of I HEART STEM, explained that the conference originally started as the nationally-funded Tech Savvy Program, for middle school students. However, five years ago, UCSB’s WiSE decided to create a program for high school students to “promote STEM literacy for women.”
When asked about the goals of the event, Jenny said that the primary goal was to “show them what it looks like to be a woman in STEM” and “give them a breadth of what STEM can be,” introducing them to different images of a career in the sciences. She later added that “the secondary goal is to show them that science is fun,” emphasizing the interactive and experimental aspects of the workshops.
Each workshop was run by two to three UCSB undergraduate or graduate students who were given the freedom to choose a topic that they found interesting in their own research. The available workshops covered a wide variety of fields and interests, from 3-D printing, to the science behind chocolate-making, to the effects of plastic on the ocean environment. The high school students chose which workshops to attend and were met with a welcoming, friendly atmosphere that encouraged questions and participation.
In the 3-D printing workshop, a UCSB volunteer passed around examples of objects 3-D printed for use in medicine, such as a spinal implant. While examining the implant, one high school student asked, “Can you 3-D print a silicone heart?” and was met with a resounding, “Yes!” The enthusiasm of the UCSB presenters created an atmosphere that made even scientifically complex concepts fun and relatable.
Tucked away in a room in the far corner of the SRB was a workshop titled The Science of Chocolate. A UCSB leader tempered chocolate at a cooking station in the back, and each high school student had the opportunity to taste test a variety of chocolates, examining and writing down their distinct characteristics: the presence of fat blooms, the texture, and the melting temperature.
Another workshop, The Chemistry of the Oceans, had a slightly darker theme, educating the students on the rising acidity of the oceans and the devastating impact that microplastics have on fish and birds.
Ali, a UCSB graduate student and the organizer of the workshop, was interviewed by the Bottom Line and said she hoped that the students would begin to take “a little bit of ownership over what’s happening,” and realize that “there is an opportunity for them to do something” and have a real impact. She expressed concern that while most high school students take some form of chemistry and biology, they often do not make connections between their class curriculum and real, global events that involve the same processes.
Before the ocean workshop began, the UCSB volunteers led an icebreaker exercise, where they explained their own journeys in their respective STEM fields. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, many of them recounted facing obstacles related to their gender, such as discouragement from family members who believed women could not do STEM, and being told by classmates that they would not be able to succeed in higher levels of science. These real-life success stories of determined women overcoming sexist societal expectations showed the high school students that there is a community out there supporting and encouraging women who decide to pursue science as a career.
This event was well-organized and run by enthusiastic, friendly volunteers who each were clearly passionate about their adventures in STEM. Today, although more and more women are finding success in STEM careers, our society is still plagued by sexism and gender-based job exclusion, so events like I HEART STEM are integral to ensuring that young girls have the resources and opportunities to study historically male-dominated subjects and pursue their interests.