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Programs Recruit Women for STEM Careers

By Rebecca Scherr

Community colleges are stepping up efforts, and investing big-time money, in programs designed to train women for successful careers in emerging science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) job fields.

Will the female scientists, tech gurus, engineers and mathematicians please stand up?

Community colleges across the country may be seeing more women graduate with STEM degrees, in part because more two-year schools are establishing promising practices to offer more flexibility and training.

According to the latest Commerce Department report on the gender gap in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), women hold half of the jobs in the U.S., but only a quarter are STEM jobs.

President Barack Obama has set goals to increase the participation of girls and women in STEM programs. Here’s closer look at what community colleges are doing to take the lead.

The gap: STEM careers are demanding, and women who are just beginning or are midway through their careers often move on to jobs that have a better work–life balance, such as those in education or health care. “Within two-year colleges in particular, the shortage of affordable childcare and the gender stereotypes that discourage women from pursuing careers in math and science are two of the biggest barriers holding women back in college,” says Preethi Radhakrishnan, an assistant professor of biology at LaGuardia Community College, in Long Island City, N.Y. Almost 60 percent of the school’s population is female, but less than 5 percent graduate with a STEM degree, Radhakrishnan says.

Why women? It’s good for the economy and for college completion rates. President Obama has commented that America — and the world — is relying on more STEM professionals. It’s also important to ensure U.S. competitiveness in the global economy. And programs that encourage women and give them the tools they need to graduate with a STEM degree can help improve overall completion rates.

Model programs: The American Association of University Women is awarding grants to community colleges from New York to Washington state to help increase STEM recruitment and support programs as well as on-campus childcare funding. Grant recipients will develop mentorship programs and host speakers’ series and leadership workshops.

The National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation is also reaching out to women interested in STEM by giving 11 schools in Ohio — including four community colleges — a total of $3.5 million over five years. The goal: to double the number of students receiving STEM degrees. Among the programs slated to receive funding are Women in Science & Engineering and We are IT, a grant-funded conference for middle school and high school girls interested in science and engineering.

LaGuardia Community College received $30,000 from the Elsevier Foundation, and in January the school rolled out its four-pronged initiative, which includes workshops, research internships, scholarships and childcare assistance. Workshops with a panel of women in STEM careers will introduce role models and outline opportunities.

“The first two years of a college career are considered key predictors of whether students will pursue a major in STEM fields,” Radhakrishnan says. “This grant will increase women entering STEM fields, gaining research experience and in successfully graduating with a STEM degree in hand.”

For more about this program, see our full story on CC Daily.

Is your school promoting STEM careers specifically to women? How is it going?

Rebecca Scherr

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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