Two years ago Evanston Township High School administrators were concerned about the drop-off in the number of girls enrolling in the most rigorous science courses. While the sophomore course had a 50-50 gender balance, the junior-year chemistry/physics course enrollment was less than 10 percent female.
In response, SESP's Kristen Perkins, the Northwestern-ETHS partnership coordinator, and ETHS senior Nina Doef started a club called Women in STEM, which is having an impact on enrollment numbers. “The girls are so enthusiastic,” says Perkins. “For a lot of the girls, having this group and getting to inspire and encourage other girls inspires them too.”
Women in STEM, which started in January 2014, has deep connections to the Northwestern community. Northwestern undergraduates help out, graduate students are guest speakers, and club members visit Northwestern to shadow researchers and attend events such as Women in Engineering Day.
The goal of the organization is “to expose girls to all the different possibilities in the STEM fields and create a culture that helps them feel supported so they can feel confident in whatever field they decide to go into,” says Perkins.
Since WISTEM started, the number of girls enrolling in the accelerated chemistry/physics course has increased to 40 percent junior year and 43 percent senior year. In addition to the growth in enrollment, Perkins is also seeing individual personal growth. For example, girls who at one time held back now feel comfortable speaking in front of a large group, she says.
The club started in January 2014 with 10 girls who met and watched videos, discussed their ideas and heard from Northwestern students about their experiences. “We approached the issue from a research standpoint,” says Perkins. The group even conducted a survey about boys and girls who persisted in science. During the 2014-15 school year, WISTEM membership grew to about 50 girls.
Now open to all girls at ETHS, approximately 120 girls attend the meetings this school year. To accommodate the huge turnout, the club meets in three sessions during the three lunch periods every Friday, and a leadership board of two juniors and two seniors assists Perkins with planning.
The typical meeting format features hands-on engineering design challenges every other week and a general meeting with conversation and games on alternate weeks. Meeting with Northwestern women is a popular aspect of the club, as is a course selection panel with junior and senior girls advising freshmen and sophomores. Students also enjoy responding to video clips with positive and negative images of women in STEM fields, according to Perkins. As a service activity, club members are beginning to tutor students in the local elementary schools in District 65.
Looking to the future, Perkins has a goal for WISTEM to attract more girls and to gain “more diversity so that all girls feel welcome and have a voice.”
Meanwhile, the girls currently participating in WISTEM are receiving recognition, and the organization is gaining visibility. December 7 starts “WISTEM Week” at ETHS.
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