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female student setting up poster at STEM event

Building a pipeline for young women in STEM

By Katharine de Baun
Student setting up STEM event

Q: What is the common denominator between isolating strawberry DNA, building Knex vehicles, spalting wood, probing sea anemone symbiosis and whipping up a batch of queso fresco?

A: They are all hands-on activities designed to delight and inspire the 123 lucky middle-schoolers from across the Willamette Valley who visited OSU’s campus on March 3, 2018  for Discovering the Scientist Within, a free half-day workshop designed to encourage young women to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers.

The program is sponsored by the College of Science, OSU Precollege Programs and STEM Academy@OSU.

Reaching young women in middle and high school is of paramount importance in our nation, as gender disparities in STEM begin to emerge when students enter college, especially for minority women. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce but only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce. Minority women comprise fewer than 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers.

Discovering the Scientist Within, a long-running annual event at Oregon State, nurtures girls’ interest in the sciences by providing a program of hands-on activities paired with positive adult women STEM role models. The goal of the workshop is to introduce girls to STEM career fields in which women are traditionally under-represented and change the stereotypical perception that scientists are male and that science is ‘difficult’.

“When Discovering the Scientist Within was first started in the 1970s, women were definitely underrepresented in all fields of science,” said Kari van Zee, instructor in biochemistry and biophysics and member of the event planning committee. “While we’ve made progress in some areas, like the biological sciences, we still have a long way to go. This event is a powerful way to get young women to consider a possible future in STEM.

“There is nothing like seeing a seventh grader’s face light up as she works on an exciting project side by side with a female scientist, engineer, or coder.”

In collaboration with co-organizers Emily Nicholson (Precollege Programs), Cathy Law (STEM Academy @ OSU) and Diana Rohlman (Environmental Health Sciences Center), Van Zee recruited over two dozen scientists at all stages of their careers to host the event. Mathematician Mary Beisiegel opened the morning with an inspirational talk about her own unconventional path from a struggling math student to becoming a math professor and nationally recognized teacher. She encouraged the young women to believe in themselves, work hard, and find people and mentors to support them. “How do you want to change the world?” she asked them. “Use that to inspire your work in mathematics.”

Graduate and undergraduate students from the Linus Pauling Institute and the Departments of Mathematics, Biochemistry and Biophysics, Physics and Integrative Biology led small hands-on workshops. In addition to learning about these topics, the students also created 3-D models in a computer graphics lab, rode a hovercraft, made and ate a dry-ice cream treat and sketched out a viable pharmaceutical product.

The planners of Discovering the Scientist Within made the most of the opportunity to reach parents, too. During the event, 25 parents and 10 siblings from Woodburn attended a STEM preparation and college readiness discussion in Spanish, followed by a campus tour and lunch.

The middle schoolers, 116 girls and seven boys who included underrepresented minorities from Portland, Gresham and Woodburn, were inspired and delighted by the event. When asked what their favorite part of the day was in an anonymous survey post-event, students responded:

“I loved everything about today!”

“Everything was my favorite part!”

“Learning new things and finding new job opportunities.”

“I don’t know… ALL OF IT WAS SO MUCH FUN!”

Discovering the Scientist Within is organized by OSU’s Office of Precollege Programs, which supports and oversees a wide range of youth outyreach activities designed to increase college access and academic preparation for Oregon’s youth.