Gena Henderson, chief of the integrative operations branch of exploration systems and operations division at NASA, said her love for STEM began at an early age. Henderson grew up about 50 miles from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and would watch rockets launch often.
When Henderson was in college studying engineering, some professors weren’t supportive and would make dismissive comments, questioning her decision to go into the engineering field.
But she persevered, and is thrilled to be participating in the innovation now happening at NASA.
Henderson was one of the panelists at the Education Department’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers 2022 Summer Symposium’s opening session.
The virtual session, held July 19, focused on what educators and after-school program providers can do to ensure they are engaging girls and other underrepresented students in STEM. The panelists included women who work at NASA and women who work in organizations trying to spark girls’ interest in STEM.
Female representation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs varies widely. While there’s a higher share of women in science-related health care jobs, women continue to be underrepresented in computer science and engineering jobs.
Women and girls have to break through barriers in order to be successful in STEM jobs. The barriers include:
- Gender stereotypes
- Math anxiety
- Male-dominated workplaces
- Fewer role models
“Some may view STEM fields as more masculine,” said Patti Curtis, a Robert Noyce/Ellen Lettvin STEM education fellow at U.S. Department of Education. “Some educators and parents underestimate a girl’s math abilities starting as early as preschool.”
“Many STEM fields are male-dominated cultures, which can perpetuate inflexible and exclusionary environments that are not supportive of or attractive to women,” Curtis added.
All the panelists agreed that the most important thing for girls is for them to have role models in the fields that they’re interested in.
“Sometimes, students don’t have a roadmap,” Henderson said. “They don’t know anyone in the endeavor [they want to get into].”
Girls tend to have fewer role models to spark their interest in STEM, the panelists pointed out, and they rarely see examples of female scientists and engineers in popular culture.
“If you were to Google ‘computer scientists’ right now, you probably would not see a young woman pop up in your search,” said Jackie Smalls, chief program officer for Code.org, an organization that is working to encourage more women and students of color to enter STEM fields.
Panelists also said that students need to be engaged in STEM early on in their school careers with hands-on learning activities in school and outside of school. Students shouldn’t be learning about these opportunities for the first time in high school.
Deanna J. Whitehead, chief of the flight & ground software & simulation division at NASA, talked about her 6th grade teacher who helped her do well in the local science fair and encouraged her to compete regionally. The experience gave her confidence and encouraged her to be able to pursue a STEM career.
“It was those experiences, maybe small experiences, that add up, that lead you to where you will eventually arrive,” Whitehead said.
She added that she’s grateful for the “many wonderful female role models” at Marshall Space Flight Center, where she works. “I don’t know what could be more encouraging than that.”