In 1990, 15 percent of all engineering bachelor’s degrees in the United States were awarded to women, according to statistics from the National Science Foundation. Twenty years later, an additional 4,000 female engineering graduates increased that number to roughly 18 percent. There were roughly three men for every one woman in science and engineering jobs in 2008, even though the number increased throughout the ‘90s.
Here at the University, a small group of women have taken the responsibility of improving those numbers. For more than five years, female students involved in Girls Excited about Math and Science have regularly brought science and math-based activities to middle school-aged girls in the Charlottesville area.
Currently, the organization has 10 active members who visit three local middle schools: J.T. Henley Middle School and Jack Jouett Middle School once a week, and Charlottesville Catholic School once every two weeks.
The students spend roughly an hour — usually during an activity or “club” period for the middle schools — mentoring young girls and emphasizing the fun and interesting parts of science. From doing simple math puzzles, to making DNA molecules out of marshmallows, to designing and building rockets, GEMS provides a small, stress-free environment in which young girls can feel comfortable learning the basics of science and meet women who are successful in many different fields.
Katie Read, a recent graduate of the Mechanical Engineering school, said her involvement with GEMS as a Henley student many years ago impacted her decision to get involved again during her time at the University. “[In middle school] we got to do a tour of the Engineering School and Grounds,” Read said. “It may have inspired me to eventually make my home in the E-school.”
In middle school, Read said, it was inspiring to see female college students taking the time to share their knowledge and serve as role models for the younger girls.
As a college student, Read joined GEMS to return the favor and make friends within the University. While helping to bring together young girls interested in math and science, the group also allows college women to be comfortable and have fun “nerding out” with like-minded students.
Second-year College student Lauren Abbott said she joined GEMS because her middle school didn’t have a similar program, and she instead joined a science club with very few other girls.
“From the science extracurricular programs I’ve seen, including the science club I was involved with in middle school, most of the participants were male,” Abbott said in an email. “GEMS strives to offer a place for young girls to express their interest in the sciences and to give them good role models [in] women planning on entering these fields of study.”
Many teachers have told the members of GEMS there has been a noticeable rise in interest in the sciences among the students participating in the program, said second-year College student Sarah Cottrell-Cumber, GEMS president. “I think they’re getting a lot more individual attention and making friends they wouldn’t [necessarily] have in school,” Cottrell-Cumber said. “They’re getting support in ways they can’t be supported in a classroom environment.”
Parents of the middle school students have also expressed appreciation for the GEMS program — some of them have even offered donations to cover the organization’s costs.