Girls and STEM Education Can Save Christmas

By Deirdre Walsh

We’ve all read the articles, seen the statistics, and listened to the conference speeches—there is a huge gender gap in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  In order for the US to remain competitive, and more importantly, for the betterment of the world, it’s critical that we have diverse talent in STEM roles. When people draw from unique experiences and viewpoints, they become more innovative, creative, and impactful.

 Ben Stagg, Halo Smart Labs

Ben Stagg, Halo Smart Labs

Recently, I met the founder of Halo Smart Labs (http://halosmartlabs.com), Ben Stagg, who created “the first smoke alarm to combine weather alerts with the detection of fires, as well as carbon monoxide, in a single unit."  While I was impressed with his Internet of Things device, I was even more inspired by how Ben came up with the idea.  His development process began as a response to the Joplin tornado that took the lives of 160 people in 2011.

“My father lives just outside of Joplin, and even with a warning from an old radio in the barn, he barely had enough time to make it to a neighbor’s cellar just as the storm was bearing down," Ben said. “After that, I began developing concepts that could improve safety in severe weather events.  I quickly discovered numerous other applications, where technology could provide critical warnings and make the difference in someone’s life.  After a house fire destroyed my mother’s home in 2013, I knew we were on the right path.” 

Ben’s story highlights how unique experience and perspective leads to innovation—in his case, the modernization of a device that, although life-saving, most of us don’t think about until it wakes us up in the middle of the night with an annoying, low-battery beep! Despite the importance of diversity, there remains a large, systematic gender gap in STEM education and related careers. This is more than an inequality issue; this is an economic red flag.

America has a growing divide between available jobs and qualified talent.  There are more than 500k unfilled IT jobs in the US, and economic projections show that in the next two years, there could be 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs (infographic). This disparity is, in part, due to the lack of women with the appropriate skills. Less than 20 percent of computer science diplomas go to women, even though female graduates hold 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees.

“One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering,” said President Barack Obama in February 2013.  "We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.” 

This issue begins early-on. Boys are 6 times more likely than girls to take an engineering class in high school, according to the NGCP (https://ngcproject.org). 

As a career high-tech marketer, I fundamentally believe that, with a better marketing plan, we can engage, inspire and influence more young women to explore STEM careers. Specifically, we need to redefine the “user experience” in the classroom, the media, and the real-world. 

Take Action in the Classroom

“Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?” ... Like in the iconic scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, STEM educators often have the reputation of being difficult, boring or nerdy.  It’s time that we give them a rebrand! 

Having survived being an awkward middle school girl, I know how important it is to be “cool.” One of the best ways to elevate the “coolness factor” of teachers this is to provide them with the latest and greatest technologies in the classroom.  We must equip STEM educators with interactive tools that inform girls about areas with great career paths like the Internet of Things, big data, mobile app development, etc.

Recently, I hosted 16 youth through the Maven ATX Tech Camp.  One of the activities we did was a “Days of Thunderboard” derby race. We invited the participants to form teams, build a “connected” car, and race it on our derby track. This isn’t your grandpa's pinewood derby car.  It’s a mini-smart car that has the Silicon Labs Thunderboard React on it in order to collect data on speed, acceleration, temperature, etc.  It sends the information about the car to a mobile device and the cloud so the teams can share, analyze information, and compete. 

While they might not get the “Days of Thunder” reference, I guarantee, that these inexpensive cars provided them several skills they can use down the road.

Take Action in the Media 

Today, male computer scientist and engineering characters outnumber females 14.25 to 1 in family films, according to the The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media (http://seejane.org).  My friend and former colleague, Ryan Rutan, is the director of developer evangelism and partner innovation at Jive Software.  As an avid movie buff and reader, he took this discrepancy head-on after having two daughters. 

“I want my girls to realize they can become anything they want, including a scientist, engineer, developer, etc.” said Ryan.  “When I looked for inspiring STEM books for girls, I came up short.  Therefore, I wrote my own called ‘The Polar Elf Innovation Squad,’ (http://www.polarport.com) which shows how a a group of elves, mostly girls, use technology and teamwork to save Christmas."

 Zoey the elf

Zoey the elf

One of the other cool facts about Ryan’s book is that several of the characters are based on real-life, smart women who work in various aspects of tech - marketing, design, engineering, etc. (Full disclosure: The character Zoey who loves hats, Internet of Things, and taking selfies is loosely based on yours truly).

While Ryan’s book is a good start, we need mainstream media outlets to follow his lead. Forensic science has proven this can work with the “CSI effect.”  By positively portraying forensic scientists on the popular TV show, undergraduate and graduate degree enrollment in related programs almost doubled from 2000 to 2005.

Take Action in the Real-World 

Every young girl should have a role model.  Mine is Janelle Monney, Innotech's "Women of the Year” award recipient for her contribution to technology, business and women in the Austin tech community.  After years as technology executive, Janelle now does executive and professional coaching, leadership development, and business transformation consulting.  I sat down with her to discuss the importance of mentorship. 

"Increasingly, the people I coach of every age say that they want to make a difference in this world.  STEM is no doubt one of the best ways to do make that passion a reality.  STEM careers are our future.  They are not only 'helping professions' that solve the world’s problems, build communities and transform nations, they are fun and provide the kind of personal flexibility that most everyone is looking for,” Janelle stated. "Girls are really good at STEM.  Somehow, we are just weirdly taught that we are not.  To build the courage, resilience and commitment that it takes to navigate through a STEM college experience and transition into a successful career, I believe that mentorship is a key component.  Mentorship should begin early…even at the grade school level.  Women in STEM are an amazing under developed opportunity for this nation.  To find ways to take of advantage of this is good for everyone.” 

We should also facilitate relationships between girls and with local businesses to bridge the connection between the classroom and workplace. At Silicon Labs, we’ve hired great female coders who are still in high school! 

Overall, let’s find ways to inspire and empower girls to explore STEM careers.  All of us will be better for it!


About Deirdre

Deirdre Walsh is an award-winning marketer with 15+ years experience in leadership roles at technology companies. Currently, she is the director of corporate marketing at Silicon Labs, which provides energy-friendly silicon and software for a smarter, more connected world.

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