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What is Your Background in STEM?
Dr. Carol O’Donnell, Director, Smithsonian Science Education Center
I majored in education with a focus on science and then became a science teacher in two public school systems in Virginia. I did that for almost a decade, teaching fourth and fifth grade. I applied for a job at the Smithsonian as a curriculum developer because I’d always been someone with a lot of ideas on how to teach science. And this was an opportunity to share my knowledge and understanding of teaching science with teachers all over the country. Then got a call from George Washington University that they had received a Natural Science Foundation Grant to study whether or not these types of science education material that was engaging youth in active STEM learning actually made a difference. So that was another opportunity for someone who didn’t have a lot of financial resources to further and continue to advance their education in exchange for managing their grant.
After doing that for four and a half, five years, I received an email from the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education asking if I would come oversee their education research program on cognition. I worked for the US Department of Education for almost a decade. Then I got a call from the Smithsonian to see if I would apply for the leadership role in the work that I had done for 11 years. And now I’m back and have been in this role for almost five years. So happy we are in the position to lead the effort of providing role model opportunities for young girls in STEM.
Sylvia Acevedo, Chief Executive Officer of the Girl Scouts on the USA
I have a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering from New Mexico State University and an MS in industrial engineering from Stanford University. I started my career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where I had the opportunity to work on two incredible projects: the Voyager 2 flyby of Jupiter and two of its moons, Io and Europa, and on the Polar Solar Probe, now known as the Parker Solar Probe. (It finally launched, decades later, in August 2018!) I later pursued a career in technology, working as an engineer and executive at Apple, Dell, Autodesk, and IBM.
What Made You Want to Pursue a Career in STEM?
Dr. Carol O’Donnell
I grew up in inner-city Pittsburg, within a fairly poor area of the city called Hazelwood. College was not something you did, that was just not a part of anyone’s path. I became just infatuated with science from a very young age and I also did really well in school. I wanted to become a science teacher. It was the role model that I had seen. I did not have the opportunity to see scientists or engineers, but I did have the opportunity to see women in science teaching roles, and because of that was all I really thought I was capable of. Looking back I wish that I had more opportunities for role models of females who were in positions of engineers or scientists and that’s why it’s so important that we do what we do today.
I discovered my interest in science and math when I was pretty young. In fact, it was at Girl Scouts that I discovered my passion for space and astronomy when I was on a camping trip with my Brownie troop and became fascinated by the night sky. My troop leader pointed the constellations out to me and explained how there were whole systems out there just ready to be explored. From that moment, I was hooked! I started taking math and science courses at school and realized that I wasn’t just interested in those subjects, I was also good at them.
Why Are There Statistically Few Women in STEM Professions?
Dr. Carol O’Donnell
There has been a lot of research done around why young girls don’t actually pursue STEM degrees or persist in those degrees. Some of the factors that explain why they don’t pursue STEM degrees have to do with psychological or social factors. Many young women view STEM careers as being agentic rather than communal. Agentic meaning they are built on money and power and status, and that’s not necessarily, according to psychological science, something that is attractive to young women.
That study was done in 2010, fast forward ten years and we’re now able to see more young women are seeing STEM as accessible to them and are seeing that STEM can be fairly communal. But the problem is that they are not persisting in those degrees. They are getting jobs in those fields and not staying in them.
I think a lot of it goes back to the way we teach STEM subjects in school. For many science and math educators, the default student is a boy. So when a school or nonprofit rolls out a curriculum that has been developed around what boys are familiar with, boys immediately gravitate to it. It is familiar, they have an interest, they’re confident in its use, and they develop competence. Girls in that same lesson are perhaps being introduced to the material for the first time. So, a girl who tries a STEM assignment or activity and doesn’t do well the first time maybe makes an assumption that she’s not good at it because she’s a girl rather than because of how the subject is being introduced or taught to her.
Did You Face Any Challenges in Your Professional Experience?
I realized early on in my time in tech that there was a lot of informal networking that really impacts your career and that, as a woman, I was left out of. In one of my first jobs at IBM, I noticed that the guys would always huddle with the male engineers on my floor, but never include me or any of the other women engineers. They would talk about the business strategies and plans, what the boss wants to hear. So it felt like there was all this inside information that I wasn’t privy to, which put me and the other women at a disadvantage. I tried crashing the party a few times, and they closed up kind of quickly.
I definitely had to spend a lot of energy tackling the different artificial barriers that stood in my way. There were a lot of assumptions I had to push through. For example, I speak English and Spanish fluently, and when I was working for a tech company there was an opportunity to go to Latin America. I had the sales, marketing, tech, and engineering background for the position, so I went to talk to the hiring vice president and he said, “I can’t have you in that role. You’re a woman.” “Why is that?” I wondered, and he said, “I feel like you wouldn’t be safe.” So, having learned that safety was his main concern, on my own I booked a ticket, went down to the country he thought was the least safe, met with people from the firm, came back, and presented all the information and market research I’d gathered. I said, “Look, I went there and came back, and I’m OK.” So he hired me and I led that team to record profits.
What Impact Does Early Exposure to Resources and Classes Have?
Dr. Carol O’Donnell
It’s crucial. Many studies have shown that the age at which these young girls make decisions about the path that they want to take… is even as young as ten. Young girls are making decisions about their ability to persist in certain disciplines and a lot of it has to do with a career path becoming to form. It’s really crucial that from a very young age, including early education that we are giving young girls to not only have success in STEM education but also give them the opportunity to see people who look like them in those careers.
The importance of early exposure to STEM subjects cannot be overstated. There are key developmental milestones in a young girl’s life and critical intervention points. By third grade, girls have formed their STEM identities—that is, they develop awareness of their level of interest, and their feelings of confidence and competence in these subjects. This is a critical time when girls, unfortunately, start to pull away from STEM. In middle school, girls continue to lose interest in STEM, and in high school, only 16% of seniors are proficient in math and interested in STEM careers. This is a terrible waste—for the girls and for our country.
How Should Parents Stimulate Interest in STEM?
Dr. Carol O’Donnell
You may have heard the term “STEM education ecosystem,” in other words, the responsibility in creating authentic STEM experiences for young girls or boys lies not only in the schools, but lies in the community. Think about the Smithsonian, museums, science centers… other learning centers, informal environments where parents can take their children… to the National Museum of Natural History to walk through the Deep Time to learn about life on earth or biodiversity. Or to take their children to your local zoo to learn about conservation at a very young age, and what they might be able to do to support a more sustainable life.
The Smithsonian also deeply believes that you can bring those resources to youth by bringing the resources of the Smithsonian that are STEM-focused directly to students, through what we consider to be a virtual Smithsonian. Our job is to provide free STEM resources to those parents so that students can engage in, whether it be an e-book or free digital resources. We take our role as a public service entity very seriously.
What are the Best Ways to Get Young Girls Interested in STEM?
Dr. Carol O’Donnell
I think more and more people are starting to recognize the importance of providing resources to support opportunities for young girls to have access to STEM experiences, especially authentic STEM experiences. And when I say authentic I mean being able to come into an environment where they are actually doing science, technology engineering, and math.
Girl Scouts has had great success engaging girls in STEM activities because we have girls at the center of all of our programming. Last year girls earned more than 1 million STEM badges in everything from robotics to data analytics, coding, app and game development, space science, outdoor high adventure, and cybersecurity.
Even for challenging topics, like our cyber badges for malware, we don’t start by discussing physical networks and communication protocols. Instead, we focus on what girls like to do. We get 7- and 8-year-old girls to sit in a circle and talk. Then we ask them to toss a ball of yarn to each other as they chat. Pretty soon a physical network is created. Then we can show that even when girls didn’t directly talk to one another they can spread bad things like viruses and malware. They get it—and they’re hooked.
What Programs and Resources are Available?
Dr. Carol O’Donnell
More and more private entities, whether they are companies like Johnson & Johnson or General Motors, more and more corporations are starting to recognize that by providing resources to nonprofits, like the Smithsonian and others, that we can provide these free resources for young girls. We do not have enough, but there are certainly a lot of initiatives not only within the Smithsonian but across the federal government who are trying to support more opportunities for young girls to see STEM as accessible.
What Types of Mentorship Opportunities are Available?
Dr. Carol O’Donnell
At the Smithsonian, we have what’s called the “Smithsonian Women’s History Initiative.” While that doesn’t sound at all like STEM, it actually is about Women both past present and future, and part of that work is around engaging more girls in opportunities to have authentic STEM experiences. Through this initiative, which is congressionally supported and mandated, we have been able to bring young women from across the country to the Smithsonian to serve in these mentorship opportunities.
We’ve been able to provide mentorship opportunities to young girls so that they can see themselves as either working within a museum or research environment. We also have worked with 16 other federal agencies that have put together internship opportunities for young girls and boys across the country… to engage in internships across the STEM federal agencies. The government put together a portal that allows young women and men to find these STEM opportunities and then to be mentored by people who are in the field.
Do You Have Advice for Young Women Interested in STEM?
Dr. Carol O’Donnell
Persist. If there is one phrase you keep in the back of your mind the entire time, it’s “don’t give up.” If persisting is one of our biggest challenges of keeping women in the STEM field, then individual women have to recognize that it’s okay to speak up. That it’s okay to ask the right questions and not to be afraid. And that’s why it’s important that men are a part of the conversation and that we don’t exclude them from the discussions around how we can help young girls.
One important piece of advice I like to give girls is this: the first person you have to convince about anything is yourself. Once you believe you can do something, no one can stop you. But you yourself have to believe it first. I fell in love with space and astronomy as a young girl and my troop leader encouraged my interest, let me know that she believed in me. It was a great awakening for me. But it wasn’t until I built an Estes rocket to earn my science badge—after much trial and error! —that I started to believe in myself. That was a real game-changer.
I also love to tell girls about the great sales advice I got as a Girl Scout selling cookies because it has to do with the persistence and resilience you need to develop in order to be successful. My troop leader told me never to walk away from a sale until you’ve heard “no” three times. It’s so valuable to practice trying to get from a “no” to a “yes.” You won’t get there every time, but you learn that sometimes—maybe often! —you will get there, and it can be transformative.