Young Women Encouraged to Pursue STEM Careers

High School Women Awarded Computing Scholarships

“How many of you carry a purse?”

Members of the mostly female audience looked around, hesitantly. It seemed like an odd question, but Ruthe Farmer, director of strategic initiatives for the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), had a point.

She smiled as nearly everyone in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Pierson Auditorium raised a hand.

“OK,” Farmer said, preparing for the next question. “Where do you put your purse when you have a passenger in the car?”

There wasn’t a clear answer. The young women in the audience – 15 of Kansas and Missouri’s most promising computing and engineering high school students – were nearing the end of a day designed to inspire them toward careers in the STEM fields. Soon, they’d each receive a NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing, but for now, they were struggling to answer a pretty basic question.

A few rows back, the scholarship winners’ mothers looked puzzled. A few rows behind them, female staff and faculty members from UMKC’s School of Computing and Engineering murmured to themselves.

Over the years, they’d all placed their purses in the few imperfect, inconvenient places a driver is given. A lap. The floorboard. The backseat.

“Why do you think it is that no one has ever put a place in a car for a woman’s purse?” Farmer asked. “It’s because there are not any female engineers designing the cars.”

The crowd of women burst into a mix of surprised laughs and ah-has. It was a funny, almost trivial revelation. The next one wasn’t.

Farmer said that for the first few years airbags were on the market, they regularly decapitated or seriously injured women. That’s because airbags were designed to protect a 5’10” male.

“If we’re not including the voices of women and minorities in the design of the technology we all use, then it’s not going to serve all of us,” Farmer said.

Like every speaker that day, Farmer directed her attention to the scholarship winners. She wanted to nurture the young women’s existing interest in the STEM fields. After all, although more women than men attend college — and more young women than young men take and pass the Advanced Placement Calculus test — women constitute only 18 percent of computer science majors.

Organizations like NCWIT, UMKC’s SCE, and other local groups, are trying to correct that imbalance by encouraging young women to pursue careers in technology. 

When NASA aerospace engineer Alicia Dwyer Cianciolo took the stage, she showed the young women that if she could make it, so could they. Cianciolo is the author of key software for the space agency’s most ambitious rover, Curiosity.

But years ago, she was just a high school student who knew more about what she didn’t want to do for a living than what she did. Growing up on a ranch taught her that she didn’t want a career that would depend on the weather.

Her interest in math and physics led her to a bachelor’s degree in Physics from Creighton University and a master’s in Mechanical Engineering from George Washington University. Through an internship with NASA, Cianciolo found her calling.

She smiled at the rows of young women as she noted the irony.

“Now my job depends on the weather on Mars,” Ciancolo said.

Photo credit: Janet Rogers, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications.

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