At Harpeth Hall School, the STEM program’s mission is to graduate the next generation of female STEM thinkers and doers.
- Dr. Barbara Bell is the director of the Center for STEM Education for Girls at The Harpeth Hall School in Nashville.
The Tennessee STEAM Festival, sponsored by the Discovery Center in Murfreesboro, ran Oct. 11-20 across the state.
The festival was a reminder, more broadly, about the need for more girls and women in STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math, or STEAM, meaning science, technology, engineering, art and math — whichever acronym you choose.
The National Science Board tells us we are a nation at risk if we do not develop more STEM talent. Where are we going to find it? Among women. We’ve been discussing it for far too long. No doubt about it, we need more women in STEM, and especially in engineering and computer science.
Women receive more undergraduate degrees than men, but not in STEM. Looking at undergraduate degrees alone, 60% of the degrees in biology and biomedical sciences and 45% of the degrees in mathematics are awarded to women; however, less than 20% of the degrees in engineering, and less than 20% of the degrees in computer science (and information science and support services) are awarded to women.
When we look at women of color, the numbers are even smaller. Asian women earn 5% of all STEM undergraduate degrees, while black women earn 2.9% and Latinas earn 3.8% of all STEM undergraduate degrees. We’ve got some work to do in education.
Start with girls
The good news is that we’re doing it and we’re starting with girls.
At Harpeth Hall’s Center for STEM Education for Girls and in our STEM Consortium we’re working to solve the challenge, one girl at a time. The Center was founded nearly eight years ago at Harpeth Hall School. Dr. Stacy Klein-Gardner was the first Director, and I now have the privilege to run it.
Barbara Bell (Photo: Submitted)
Our vision is a world without a gender gap in STEM. Along with our STEM Consortium schools, our mission is to help equip schools to graduate the next generation of female STEM thinkers and doers by providing leadership, expertise, advocacy and innovation in STEM education for Girls.
One excellent example of the difference we are making is through our STEM Summer Institute, or SSI. We recruit girls from all over greater Nashville (19 schools total), including some of our most underserved areas, and bring the best and brightest girls to campus for our research-based STEM summer program. We offer scholarships and free transportation to eliminate the barriers some students might have in getting to SSI.
For high schoolers, we offer a two-week program and for middle schoolers, we offer two, one-week programs. Once on campus, we give girls a real-world problem to solve, teach them the engineering design process, provide needed materials and support, and then, working in teams, they design solutions.
This year we served 32-33 girls per week. And the really good news, 48% were girls of color.
An education that makes a difference
For STEM Summer Institute 2019, we partnered with the Lwala Community Alliance to help solve some of the challenges facing the community of Lwala, Kenya. In our two-week high school camp, girls were given the challenge to create “safe stoves” for women in Kenya to use during the rainy season, when cooking fires must be brought inside.
Using a mix of concrete, wire, clay, and galvanized aluminum among other building materials, the girls worked in teams to build prototype ovens including “gasifiers,” “brick ovens,” and “fire bowls.” They tested their prototypes, made changes in composition and scale, then demonstrated their final projects to a panel of judges, all STEM professionals from across the Nashville community.
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During our first one-week camp for middle schoolers, girls designed, built and demonstrated lighting solutions for girls in Kenya to study at night. In the second week of middle school camp, girls made kitchen utensils to support the “safe stoves” that the high school students designed.
We know how girls learn best in STEM. Once on campus, we encouraged the girls to try multiple solutions. They learned to take risks, that failure is ok and learned to try again.
We engaged the girls in inquiry based and project based learning and tied their learning to a higher purpose. We helped our girls build their 3D spatial skills through hands-on learning.
Girls need to see themselves in STEM
During lunch, we had a diverse group of women in STEM speak to the girls about their careers. We had an electrical engineer turned pastor, a professor of civil and architectural engineering, a chemical engineer who is now an international security policy specialist, an astrophysicist who now studies museum science, and a Vanderbilt University biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidate. These women were diverse in experience, background, race and ethnicity.
Our work did not stop at the end of camp. We provide follow-up support for the girls. If they need a college recommendation or a mentor, we’re there for them. Oh, by the way, their designs are going to Kenya.
We’re already excited about next year’s STEM Summer Institute. Remember, we’re working to end the gender gap in STEM for all girls … one girl at a time.
Dr. Barbara Bell is the director of the Center for STEM Education for Girls at The Harpeth Hall School in Nashville.
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