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Expanding Horizons: An Effort To Inspire Girls To Pursue Fields In Science And Technology

Friday, November 14, 2014

As a student hunts for Waldo, the object on the table is able to follow where she's looking. This one of three "alternate input" devices at the 2014 Expanding Your Horizons conference at Wichita State University.

In 1974, a group of female scientists and educators in San Francisco started an organization called Expanding Your Horizons. It was simply a way to support one another and share ideas. Eventually, conferences were formed and young girls were introduced to science, technology, engineering and math.

Forty years later, these efforts continue across the world. Roughly 25,000 middle school-aged girls take part each year, including more than 100 in Wichita, KS.  Moriah Beck, a biochemist at Wichita State and a COBRE Center member, has brought the Expanding Your Horizons conference to Wichita, KS, two years in a row. Girls in the Wichita area who attend the conference participate in workshops on topics that include computer coding, climate change, physics and simple machinery, to name a few.

Students here learn how to code their own video games. Computer programming--video games especially--have seen a gradual decline of female staffers over the past few decades. For student Siubhan Mora-Bruce, computer programming has been the best part of her day. She already knows a bit of HTML coding. When asked if this kind of stuff is only for boys, she says that simply wouldn't be fair.

“I think that would be wrong, we all live in this society.”

That’s an idea  Beck can get behind.

“I think it's important to have women role models and for (these girls) to be able to see themselves in that career, to see someone of the same sex or same race is really critical,” she says.

The instructors here also want to provide these workshops to specific minority groups. Hispanic and African American women are the least represented groups in the fields of science and technology. Beck says it’s critical to introduce students to these fields at a young age. She grew up in Colorado and still remembers a program she took as a kid.

“We did an outdoor lab, we stayed for a week in the mountains without being able to take a shower," she says. "Those kinds of things make a lasting memory. I think that’s why we pick the middle school age--you can still capture their interest, it’s not too late.”

Organizers made an effort to stray from the more obvious professions in science and technology and offer fields such as forensic science, microbiology and biofuels. She wants these workshops to continue in Wichita for years to come.

“We need to keep funding for it and we’d like to offer scholarships,” Beck says. "We grew from 100 to 150 participants this year and we want to grow. We would also like to have events come out of this to continue mentoring students.”

Christi Corbett is a researcher for the American Association of University Women, based in Washington D.C. AAUW is an organization that promotes female educators. Corbett conducts research on why some fields of science and technology are balancing out, and why some are still male dominated.

 “There’s a lot of people who believe in gender equity and are trying to encourage girls who are interested in these fields," Corbett says. "But, we are all still affected by the environment in which we live and the stereotypes that exist Things are changing, but it's true that these stereotypes do affect the way people think about themselves.”

Corbett says women now represent the majority of students earning biology degrees, and in chemistry, it’s about even. But in the areas of physics, engineering and computer science, men are still graduating and retaining jobs at much higher percentages. To even the playing field, she says the biggest factor is exposure--the more programs available to young girls, the more opportunities to provide that spark.

Edited version of article by Sean Sandefur, KMUW Wichita Public Radio