By GINA CAIRNEY
WASHINGTON (October 20, 2011)—In 2004, Sandy Poinsett, a professor at the College of Southern Maryland, noticed there were only two or three girls among 20 boys in her calculus class—not enough of an improvement over her own college calculus class, where two or three girls joined 200 boys.
The thought that more girls should be represented in today's math courses led her to start an event to encourage young women to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"Girls learn differently from boys and teachers need to adjust teaching styles," Poinsett said, to get girls more involved in the classroom conversations, especially where boys are the majority.
That idea sparked the College of Southern Maryland's Women and Math Conference, the seventh of which was held Saturday in La Plata. About 80 young women ages 13 to 21 from Charles, St. Mary's and Prince Frederick counties participated in workshops led by women in STEM-related fields including cryptology, architecture and microbiology.
More women are earning advanced degrees and entering the work force, but as an August 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce said, in 2009 women held less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, and even with those degrees, they were less likely to have a STEM occupation, choosing education or health care-related fields instead.
One problem cited for that discrepancy in the Commerce Department's report was a lack of female role models.
Role models are important to spark interest among young women and girls in STEM subjects, and while male role models have been helpful, said Stephanie McCaslin, a professor at CSM, "when girls have mentors who are also female, they are empowered."
One of those role models is Barbara Ives, a former Navy captain. She was part of the first graduating class of women at the United States Naval Academy, receiving her commission in 1980 with a geophysics major. She emphasized to her young audience that the discipline was full of science and math, and described the academic and leadership excellence of her female colleagues compared to their male academy peers.
Now a dean of academics at St. Mary's Ryken High School, Ives grabbed the women's attention during her keynote speech, sharing her experiences as a woman in a man's world. Her message to the young women was to stop making excuses. "If you want to do something, do it," Ives said.
Diane Kaufman Fredette, a Manhattan architect, comes to the event every year because so few female architects are available nearby. "Programs like these are excellent," Fredette said, because it creates an understanding of what women can do. "There was a presumption that men would be more successful, but in today's world there are lots of women becoming role models."
The push for STEM education in schools comes in part from President Obama's priority of growing the economy and making the country more globally competitive. In 2009, the president announced his initiatives to prioritize STEM education funding and to move American students to the top ranks of math and science achievement.
The president's initiative calls for preparing STEM undergraduates to become effective teachers, investing $80 million in training future STEM teachers and devoting $20 million to support research on how to train, support and retain STEM teachers.
McCaslin said she hopes schools will increase their use of alternative assessments to determine how much their students are learning.
"You're just getting feedback from the textbook," by asking simple test questions, she said. "It makes it more meaningful for the students," when they're able to use their talents and apply the material to their own lives.
Rebekah Younan, a second-year student at CSM, began as an architecture major, but after attending the conference last year, she switched to engineering.
"I came last year and saw there were more options," Younan said.
The young student attended the event on Saturday to look at what options are available to her as an engineering major.
"The conference helps pick out what type of engineering I want to go in to. It opens your curiosity and helps you see it all started with math."