DES MOINES, Iowa, November 9, 2012 — The number of women seeking degrees in science and related fields at Iowa’s three public universities is on the rise, Iowa Board of Regents data show.
This fall, 11,388 women, or one in three female students, enrolled in science, technology, engineering and math majors at University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa. That’s a 13 percent increase from three years ago; total female enrollment during that time grew 2 percent.
University officials credit the burgeoning interest in STEM studies to outreach efforts directed at girls well before they reach high school, as well as a statewide and national emphasis on those disciplines.
Today there are more college students like Alyssa Miller, an ISU senior in physics, visiting K-12 classrooms around the state. She dropped by Harding Middle School in Des Moines last week, where she helped groups of students in competition to build sturdy structures out of wooden sticks, plastic straws and paper.
|ISU student Alyssa Miller helps Harding Middle School students in a building competition. Photo courtesy The Register
Sparking an early interest in children is important, because research suggests older role models can help students as early as fourth grade develop an interest in science, university officials said.
“It’s one of their first exposures to the sciences, and that’s what’s really exciting about this; we’re able to give them that first experience,” Miller said.
At ISU, college students last year talked to 9,300 children in classrooms around the state about science careers, a 57 percent increase from the previous year, according to Women in Sciences and Engineering program figures. The jump came, in large part, because of greater awareness created by Gov. Terry Branstad’s high-profile push to expand STEM education in Iowa, officials said.
This could have a far-reaching effect: Expanding outreach now should result in higher numbers of women in STEM majors over the next decade, officials said.
“It’s a pipeline issue,” said U of I Provost Barry Butler, explaining the recent growth. “What we’re seeing is programs that were focused on third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, those students are starting to show up (in college).”
Science and engineering departments around the country have come a long way in recruiting more women over the past four decades.
Since 2010, women at Iowa’s universities have accounted for about 40 percent of all STEM majors, slightly above the national average.
ISU women in 1967 accounted for less than 2 percent of enrollment in what was then called the College of Agriculture, said dean Wendy Wintersteen. Today, 47 percent of students are women.
Greater interest can be achieved through better marketing, Wintersteen said. A name change five years ago to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences was part of a broader effort to increase enrollment at the college, which this year achieved record enrollment.
The new name helped persuade students who may have otherwise dismissed the agriculture school as only for aspiring farmers to give the college a closer look, Wintersteen said. Women account for more than half of those enrolled in the Department of Animal Science, the college’s largest with more than 900 students.
“Part of that is the draw of veterinary medicine, the human-animal interaction that so many of us enjoy in our lives,” Wintersteen said.
As universities push for gender equality in STEM enrollment, officials do so by acknowledging women often have different motivations than men for choosing a career, said Karen Zunkel, director of the ISU Women in Science and Engineering program.
ISU’s College of Engineering has struggled for the past five years to push female enrollment past 15 percent, enrollment data show.
The number is above 20 percent at U of I, in large part because the university specializes in biomedical engineering, Zunkel said.
The difference? Studies show women prefer a STEM field in which they believe their degree can benefit people, by perhaps eradicating disease or combating water pollution, Zunkel said. In scholarship essays, she said a man is more likely to mention gaining a good job as motivation; a woman will more often emphasize fighting cancer.
“Women have this more aspirational reason for pursuing their STEM careers,” Zunkel said. “It’s not that they want a great job with great pay; it’s that they want to make a difference in the world.”
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