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Expanding Horizons: An Effort To Inspire Girls To Pursue Fields In Science And Technology

Sean Sandefur

In 1974, a group of female scientists and educators in San Francisco started an organization called Expanding Your Horizons. It was simply a way to support one another and share ideas. Eventually, conferences were formed and young girls were introduced to science, technology, engineering and math.

Forty years later, these efforts continue across the world. Roughly 25,000 middle school-aged girls take part each year, including some in Wichita.   

It’s early on a Saturday morning, and while many of their fellow classmates may be sleeping in, over a hundred young girls are swapping stories in a hallway at Wichita State University.

They’ve just finished their first of many workshops and are eager to move on to the next. There’s lots of topics to choose from: climate change, physics and simple machinery, to name a few. The most popular seems to be computer science.

“Leap Motion is a gesture based device," says Crystal Haskins, a graduate student at Wichita State. "That means you can control and interact with the computer screen using hand motions."

Credit Sean Sandefur
In this workshop, students were able to fabricate their own wind turbine out of CDs and poster board. Through trial and error, the girls were able to get their turbines to rotate

Haskins is introducing a group of girls to a device that reads the movement of their hands and replicates it on a computer screen. They’re using it to place colored cubes onto a cartoon robot, which is harder than it seems.

This kind of technology is called "alternate input." It allows users to interact with computers without the usual mouse or keyboard. This would include devices like Google Glass, which resembles a pair eyeglasses, but displays content right in front of your eye.

Barbara Chaparro heads the Human Factors Graduate Program at Wichita State. As part of the psychology department, Chaparro and her colleagues test real-world applications for this kind of technology.

"Imagine an aircraft technician looking underneath an aircraft," Chapparo says. "If they need to bring up a schematic, they'd be fumbling around for a book, or trying to look at it on an iPad. With (Google Glass), they can look at it right in front of them. That's the sort of angle we're taking.”

It may be awhile before the girls in this room are using alternate input devices for more than video games, but the idea is to spark an interest.

Students here also learn how to code their own video games. Computer programming--video games especially--have seen a gradual decline of female staffers over the past few decades.

For student Siubhan Mora-Bruce, computer programming has been the best part of her day. 

“I think my favorite thing was making my own flappy bird game, because I could make sharks going through lasers,” Mora-Bruce says.

She already knows a bit of HTML coding. When asked if this kind of stuff is only for boys, she says that simply wouldn't be fair.

“I think that would be wrong, we all live in this society.”

Credit File photo
Dr. Moriah Beck

That’s an idea Moriah Beck can get behind; she’s a biochemist at Wichita State and has brought the Expanding Your Horizons conference here two years in a row.

“I think it's important to have women role models and for (these girls) to be able to see themselves in that career, to see someone of the same sex or same race is really critical,” she says.

The instructors here also want to provide these workshops to specific minority groups. Hispanic and African American women are the least represented groups in the fields of science and technology. Beck says it’s critical to introduce students to these fields at a young age.

She grew up in Colorado and still remembers a program she took as a kid.

“We did an outdoor lab, we stayed for a week in the mountains without being able to take a shower," she says. "Those kinds of things make a lasting memory. I think that’s why we pick the middle school age--you can still capture their interest, it’s not too late.”

Organizers made an effort to stray from the more obvious professions in science and technology and offer fields such as forensic science, microbiology and biofuels. She wants these workshops to continue in Wichita for years to come.

“We need to keep funding for it and we’d like to offer scholarships,” Beck says. "We grew from 100 to 150 participants this year and we want to grow."

“We would also like to have events come out of this to continue mentoring students.”

A National Concern

Christi Corbett is a researcher for the American Association of University Women, based in Washington D.C.

“There’s a lot of people who believe in gender equity and are trying to encourage girls who are interested in these fields," Corbett says. "But, we are all still affected by the environment in which we live and the stereotypes that exist.”

AAUW is an organization that promotes female educators. Corbett conducts research on why some fields of science and technology are balancing out, and why some are still male dominated.

Corbett says the demographics of today reflect a culture that, for a long time, thought women were less suited for certain jobs.

“I think it was in the 90's, there was a Barbie that came out that said, ‘math class is hard," she says. "AAUW wrote letters and eventually the Barbie was taken off the market. There's now a computer science Barbie."

"Things are changing, but it's true that these stereotypes do affect the way people think about themselves.”

Credit National Science Foundation, American Bar Association, American Association of Medical Colleges / Quoctrung Bui/NPR
Quoctrung Bui/NPR

Corbett says women now represent the majority of students earning biology degrees, and in chemistry, it’s about even. But in the areas of physics, engineering and computer science, men are still graduating and retaining jobs at much higher percentages.

To even the playing field, she says the biggest factor is exposure--the more programs available to young girls, the more opportunities to provide that spark.

Below is an in-depth look at the demographics of STEM fields: