Before she started her junior year at Riverpoint Academy, 16-year-old Whitney wasn’t too keen on science. “I thought it was the worst thing. Like, so annoying,” she says. Now she’s working with a team of classmates to develop a power-generating exhaust system for indoor cooking fires commonly used in developing countries. “Science is really just answering questions,” and that, she says is pretty interesting. Her team was one of just fourteen nationwide to win a grant from the MIT School of Engineering’s Lemelson-MIT Program to inspire young inventors.
Women comprise only a quarter of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) field employees nationally and in Washington State. Washington will have an estimated 50,000 unfilled jobs by next year, the majority of those in STEM and high-skilled healthcare professions traditionally dominated by men.
The “skills gap,” this huge demand for more skilled workers, cripples our economy locally and nationally by limiting companies’ growth and giving them reason to relocate. “We have a huge need for more young women and females to be interested in and actually achieving success in STEM fields. They are significantly underrepresented,” says Spokane STEM executive director Alisha Benson.
She calls it a leaky pipeline. It starts early, before kids even enter school. As soon as girls have an option to disengage from math and science education, they do. “They’re opting out of science and they’re opting out of math classes at a very young age,” she says. “There’s even less of them when they’re enrolling in higher education.” There’s no quick fix, Benson says, but it’s an important one.
A 5 percent increase in Washington’s public high school graduates pursuing computer science or engineering degrees would increase the annual pool of qualified employees by 3,000 per year, according to a 2013 report by Boston Consulting Group and Washington Roundtable.
Spokane STEM, a Greater Spokane Incorporated (GSI) program, has engaged local business owners, women in STEM, and educators to create strategies for encouraging women to study and work in STEM fields. “Everyone is really aware that this is a need and we don’t have a ton of really proven practices yet,” says Benson, “and that’s why we’re having that conversation.”
She names employee recruitment strategies and family leave policies as two areas companies seeking to hire more women should examine. Career fairs may be too little, too late for recruiting women to STEM jobs. Women comprise less than 20 percent of engineering and computer science students in 2014 according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
Engaging women in STEM fields starts when they are much younger, as early as their toddler years, Benson says. “So much of what happens in the home environment [and] also within the schools is that the message that is sent to boys is so different from the message sent to girls.”
Riverpoint Academy aims to change that for students before they decide on a college major. The STEM-focused school, which doesn’t have classrooms but does have 3D printers, offers three semester-long classes to its current batch of juniors and seniors: Biomechanics, Trep (short for entrepreneurship), and Inventioneering. When the school expands to grades 9-12 next year and caps its enrollment at 200, it will strive to enroll 50 percent female students.
“Girls have to be able to see themselves [in the environment], and so we want to make sure we have female role models for them,” says Moleena Harris, principal at Riverpoint Academy. “I think for many reasons some girls have heard the message that math or science or engineering fields are hard. [We] are trying to dispel that myth by providing learning experiences that are accessible for them.”
The school partners with local businesses to help students form connections and envision working in STEM jobs. Marisa, 17, spends most of her time at school studying how music affects the brain. Last semester, she created a plan to get local elementary school kids interested in robots and coding. Yet, the engaging projects aren’t what she loves most about going to Riverpoint Academy in north Spokane—instead, it’s the confidence she’s gained since transferring here from Mead High School. “Usually, I’d just stay in my own corner by myself,” she says. “Now, I’m just able to talk to people without being afraid of saying the wrong thing, or saying something stupid or embarrassing.”
Her teachers at Riverpoint take interest in her as a person and encourage her to be proud of her work, she says. It’s not by accident that she feels that way. “One of the founding principles of this school is just breaking down power structures, making sure adults are collaborators,” says principal Moleena Harris.
Cierra, 17, who is part of Whitney’s MIT grant-winning team, has gone from failing math classes to looking forward to her daily hour-long math class. “I love math now and I never thought that would be me,” she says. Cierra is most proud of the recent opportunity she had to present her work on the cookstove project to a visitor from MIT. Most of their work has been presented as a team project, but this time, she spoke specifically about the portion she is contributing. “I actually got to say, ‘Yeah, this is stuff that I’ve done,’’’ she says. “It just felt really good to be able to say, like, ‘I did it.’’’
Though she struggled at Mount Spokane High School, Cierra is excelling at Riverpoint Academy. “You think of a regular school and it’s just books and paper,” she says. “Here, you can do anything.”