SeptSTEMber Series: Simone Acha Talks Engaging Girls in STEM

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Simone Acha, ECS Federal

Simone Acha, ECS Federal

WashingtonExec’s STEM Executive series will run throughout September and October and spotlight local government and private sector executives and their insights about the shortage in STEM workers/local pipeline gap. We’ll publish the stories periodically throughout “SeptSTEMber” in Q&A or feature format.

The greater Washington area employs the largest percentage of STEM workers (18.8 percent in Maryland and 16.5 in Virginia, according to a U.S. Census report), suggesting the area depends heavily on STEM competence for its continued sustainability. And while industry and government execs are eager to hire STEM graduates, the number of U.S. high school seniors who are both proficient and interested in STEM lies at a meager 16 percent.

WashingtonExec interviewed Simone Acha, who sold her company iLuMinA to ECS Federal in September 2012.

WashingtonExec: When did you become interested in STEM issues?

Simone Acha: I have been volunteering as a “mentor” to young women pursuing careers in the STEM fields since 1999, most recently as part of the GIT Program funded by the Women In Technology Education Foundation (WITEF), and so I have been aware of the challenges of attracting and keeping young women interested in careers in STEM. But when I read in an article a statistic that the number of women pursuing a computer science degree had dropped from 36 percent in 1985 to less than 18 percent in 2010, it brought the issue home for me.

Today’s young women and men have been exposed to computers and technology throughout their childhood and so the fact that the numbers are declining for women pursuing a career in computers and technology — a career that promises gainful employment and exciting challenges now and in the future — means we’re not doing something right. And so I started getting better educated, more involved and volunteering for various STEM efforts in the D.C. metro area.

Moreover, I benefitted from having a strong female role model in my godmother, an engineer supporting the U.S. space program at a time when there weren’t many female engineers at all, encouraging me and helping me realize my potential. I had a father that kept telling me I had the same brain as a boy, and therefore, could study anything a boy could study.

WashingtonExec: What do you see as the underlying root of this problem?

Simone Acha: I don’t think there is just one underlying root that has caused this problem. I think we need to look at various contributors. For example, how we encourage our children in their scholastic pursuits? Do we allow our children to fail, or do we make them afraid of it? This is particularly important since many great advancements in science, technology and medicine started out as failures. Do we get all children access to computers and the internet? Do we make them and their parents aware of the other learning opportunities beyond just school — many of them free — that are offered throughout the D.C. metro area? Do we have strong “mentors” and adult role models engaging with them and encouraging them along in their path to developing their talents? These are just some examples of the contributing factors we need to address going forward if we’re going to make a dent in this issue.

WashingtonExec: How and where should policymakers be focusing their resources and efforts to augment the pipeline and address the underlying problem?

Simone Acha: I don’t know if policymakers alone can make a difference in this problem, but a definite continued national focus on the problem will help bring the right types of talents and resources together to address the challenges in front of us. I think industry has to be engaged as they have a vested interest in a healthy pipeline of STEM talent in the U.S., and I know they want to be engaged. So now it is about focusing the energy and resources being made available on areas that indeed have an impact and make a difference.

WashingtonExec: What challenges do you see currently impeding the path to implementing that solution and making STEM reform a priority in the U.S.?

Simone Acha: I think the greatest challenge we have is time. To a certain extent, we are already behind in getting the pipeline “filled.” But I think we also need to re-brand how we explain STEM careers to our kids. For example, engineering sounds intimidating and very technology focused, when in fact, engineers are just problem-solvers that use their creativity and knowledge of science, math and/or technology to fix problems or to improve solutions. I’m not sure we help kids understand that there is creativity in all aspects of STEM and a need for strong communication skills, as well.

WashingtonExec: Why do you care?

Simone Acha: Being a child during the 1970s and watching women fight for their equality in the workplace, demanding the same chance to pursue their opportunities had a huge impact on me. I remember the national struggle for Title IX in sports programs for girls in public schools, and the burning of bras and the demand for equal pay for equal work — all of that inspired us younger girls to have a natural “fight” in us to go for it.

Moreover, I benefitted from having a strong female role model in my godmother, an engineer supporting the U.S. space program at a time when there weren’t many female engineers at all, encouraging me and helping me realize my potential. I had a father that kept telling me I had the same brain as a boy, and therefore, could study anything a boy could study. I recognize how much these adult role models and words of encouragement had an impact on my pursuing a degree in engineering and being successful in my own career, and I would like to pay that forward in the next generation of young women.

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