There was something new at WashingtonExec’s K-12 STEM Symposium this year: an entire wing of the Nysmith School dedicated to women and girls in STEM. Altamira sponsored the unit and set up activities, including slime making and drone hacking.
“This has been a passion of ours and mine personally for a good part of the last decade,” said Altamira Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Jonathan Moneymaker. “I came to last year’s STEM Symposium and was blown away, so when the opportunity came up this year to get involved, we wanted to use it to bring more visibility and awareness to something that’s very important.”
Wandering around the Girls in STEM wing was a special kind of adrenaline rush. Kids and parents alike were packed around tables, wide-eyed and excited. Volunteers from Altamira could be seen running around with gallons of milk (for the make-your-own-ice-cream station, where students learned about freezing point depression), and teaching students to code.
Sarah Kozik built the Hack My Drone project. She’s a reverse engineer for Altamira, having joined through its acquisition of Prime Solutions last year. While her team at Altamira is great, it hasn’t always been this way throughout her career.
“I was tired of walking into a room and being the only woman,” Kozik said.
She and a colleague had started an internship program for college students back at Prime Solutions, but by that time, many of the girls had already left the STEM career path.
“As girls start getting older, stereotypes are reinforced and they realize that there aren’t any other women in the room and wonder, ‘Why am I here? I’m the only girl,'” Kozik said.
Brian Moran and Sarah Eastman noticed the same thing. They own Boolean Girl, which runs summer camps and after-school programs, where elementary-school-aged girls learn to code from other young women in STEM.
“Often, there simply aren’t programs like these available in schools,” Moran said. “But what I hear from my instructors is that when something is available, it’s probably with all boys and they’re the only girl in the room, so they say, ‘I’m not going to sign up again.'”
In middle school, in particular, the stereotype that tech is for boys also drives girls to opt out because they don’t want to be outcasts.
“The good news is, I don’t think it’s an innate difference,” Eastman said. “It’s socialization, and we can solve that problem. A lot of it has to do with making sure girls have peers and mentors as well. Boolean Girl provides both: girls sitting next to you in class and your instructors are women in the field.”
This is exactly the kind of thing Moneymaker said there needs to be more of.
“You see the gender divide from a career standpoint, when you’re looking to hire more women, from a university standpoint, where we’re trying to attract more women to technical fields, and it just backs up earlier and earlier,” he said. Moneymaker is on the board of University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, and has two young daughters.
“We, as a society, need to be doing more and that is why we’ve launched the Girls in STEM initiative,” he added. “It is not the singular answer, but hopefully will build awareness at all levels.”