Madison Ingram climbed on top of a chair, hoisting her group’s homemade hot air balloon as high as she could.
The 16-year-old Bexley High School junior let go of the hot air balloon – made with six birthday candles, straws and a trash bag – and it gracefully swayed as it gently landed on the tile floor of the science classroom.
“Fly, fly, fly,” Ingram said excitedly.
This wasn’t a science experiment for class. This was Bexley’s Women in STEM Club, which Ingram helped found earlier this school year with three of her classmates.
“It can be really hard to want to go into something like (STEM) that is so male-dominated,” Ingram said. “It helped us learn more about what you can do and then also having a place to go for fun projects.
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has traditionally been a male-dominated field, but Greater Columbus school districts are finding more and more females interested in STEM careers.
STEM is still male-dominated among Ohio State students
There has been a slight uptick of women pursuing degrees in STEM fields at Ohio State University, but men remain the overwhelming majority.
There were about 2,130 female students representing 24% of the total enrollment, in Ohio State’s College of Engineering at the undergraduate level last fall, up from 23.5% or 2,062 from fall 2016 semester.
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The number of female students at the undergraduate level majoring in computer science and engineering jumped from 180 (13.5%) in 2016 to 328 (16%) last fall semester.
Physical majors, however, only saw a minor increase to 41 total female students (17%) last fall from 39 (14%) in 2017.
Women make up 34% of the STEM workforce, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. And the numbers are even lower when it comes to certain fields in STEM. Women make up 26% of computer and math sciences and 16% of engineering.
“There is still a stereotype that men should be engineers and women should stick to nursing,” said Netra Joshi, a 16-year-old junior at Dublin Jerome High School who wants to pursue a career in cybersecurity. “Any field that is dominated by just males or just females is not bringing out the true potential for that field to start with.”
Joshi took an advanced placement computer science class last year and is taking another AP computer science class this year, but the number of girls taking the second class dropped. Women comprised about half her class last year, but this year she is one of only three females.
“It’s fascinating and sad that so many women drop out of taking these STEM courses,” she said. “There are so many aspects to (STEM), so having more women, having the diversity in STEM increase is definitely crucial to bringing out what STEM can do and how it can change the world.”
Women in STEM at Ohio State
Kavya Narayanan, an Ohio State senior majoring in biomedical engineering, remembers walking into her first engineering college class and being severely outnumbered by her male classmates.
“Initially, it’s definitely scary,” the 22-year-old said. “It’s a lot of unknowns. If you are around other people who look like you it’s a sense of security. ”
The Society of Women Engineers, a national chapter, helped her get through college. She is currently the president of Ohio State’s chapter.
Ohio State’s Society of Women Engineers chapter has about 300 members and strives to empower women in the field to achieve their goals. They even work to promote STEM to K-12 female students through a pen pal program they set up with various middle and high schools across the country.
“Females definitely bring a different perspective to the table and different considerations to the table that, if we want to be creating innovative solutions to help people, we need women at the table as well because we can’t just cater solutions to males,” Narayanan said.
Why aren’t more women pursuing science careers?
A lack of representation of women in STEM careers is a big barrier to young women seeing themselves as scientists, engineers or computer scientists, said Michelle Stie, vice president of teaching and learning at the National Math and Science Initiative.
“We get a lot of messages from cultures that this is not a path for girls,” she said.
Stereotyping, lack of confidence and imposter syndrome are also factors, she said.
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“If they don’t feel confident enough to work alongside the ills in the classroom, they’re going to find different things where they don’t have to compete,” said Lori Mesi, coordinator of Dublin City Schools’ Engineering Academy.
The district has been able to identify and reach out to female students who show an interest in the engineering academy through a career aptitude test.
“If people aren’t intentional about inviting girls to the space, they don’t see themselves there,” Mesi said.
One of only two female STEM students
Harker LeCroy is one of only two female students in Dublin’s engineering academy, which enrolls about 50 students.
The 17-year-old junior at Dublin Coffman High School said at this point in the school year it doesn’t really bother her, but she admits she initially felt like she had to earn the respect of her male peers.
“I felt like I had to prove myself to be almost smarter to prove to the rest of them that I belong,” LeCroy said. “I can’t just be on the same level. I have to impress to get respect. ”
LeCroy said she initially wouldn’t get assigned a role during group projects at the start of the school year, and it wasn’t until her classmates realized she could code that they started respecting her.
“I was on the same level as all of them, but I didn’t really earn their respect until I was above in certain ways,” she said.
Female students active on Grandview robotics team
Grandview Heights High School has a robotics team that caters to students who are interested in STEM.
The 22-person team has an even mix of males and females, said the club’s adviser Jo Lee, a chemistry and physics teacher at the high school. She said she likes to encourage her female students to believe in themselves.
“It does come across that they have internalized that in some way (men are smarter in the STEM field),” she said.
“I just like to see them see themselves for how I see them – as the smart, intelligent critical thinkers that they are, but they just haven’t realized it yet.”
Bexley Women’s STEM Club
Bexley’s Women in STEM club meeting, which averages 10 to 15 people, does hands-on activities like hot air balloons and includes talks about different women in STEM.
The group got the idea for the hot air balloons when they learned about Anna Easley, a computer scientist for NASA for 34 years.
The students split up into three groups that each made their own hot air balloons, which gave the students a chance to problem-solve and figure out how to make the balloons float.
“It was just cool to see something actually happen,” Ingram said. “We’d never do this in school (for class).”
Megan Henry is a Columbus Dispatch K-12 education reporter. Reach her at email@example.com or (614) 559-1758.Follow her on Twitter @megankhenry. Sign up for her education newsletter here.