Catholic girls schools work to close gender gap in STEM fields

Clubs, courses boost interest and career prospects for aspiring young women

Marian High School students meet with working professionals from companies such as IBM and Sun Microsystems as part of a STEM career night designed to pique interest in such field amoung young women.  Photos by Marian High School

Marian High School students meet with working professionals from companies such as IBM and Sun Microsystems as part of a STEM career night designed to pique interest in such field amoung young women.
Photos by Marian High School

Metro Detroit — Education is vital in the 21st century workforce, especially for young women looking to make strides in engineering, programming and scientific fields.

Fields traditionally dominated by men are now seeing more women aspire to jobs that tend to be more high-paying, which also serves to level the gender gap in the American workforce.

But before such financial equality can be achieved, young women first need a solid education in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — something the Archdiocese of Detroit’s all-girl college preparatory schools are providing through their curricula as well as many extracurricular clubs and organizations.

For instance, Bloomfield Hills Marian High School’s STEM club is new this year, introducing students to professionals who work in these fields.

“The goal of the club is to introduce girls to different professions in these areas,” said Stephanie McRoberts, a mathematics teacher at Marian. “We’ve done a few engineering projects and have a medical club that focuses on medical aspects of a STEM education. We also have a robotics team in combination with (Bloomfield Hills) Brother Rice High School.”

McRoberts said the clubs allow students to intermingle with others who aren’t in their core classes and explore potential college majors and careers.

Marian recently hosted a STEM career night in which alumni and parents of Marian students were asked to prepare presentations for the students, McRoberts said.

“We had 28 different companies come in and set up booths; about a third of the student body attended,” she said. “It mimicked a job fair, where students had the chance to talk to all these professionals.”

The key to getting girls interested in science and technology is showing real-world application behind the education, according to McRoberts.

“We really exemplify the real-world application in our courses,” McRoberts said. “All the STEM activities go above and beyond that. The world is changing so rapidly, most of the jobs these girls are going for haven’t been invented yet. Teaching them to learn new things and becoming independent learners is critical.”

Much of the extra coursework is requested by students, said Farmington Hills Mercy High School science teacher Cathy Riley, moderator of the all-girls school’s GIDAS Club, which stands for Genes in Diseases and Symptoms. Students at Mercy requested the club, said Riley.

“They’re so enthusiastic about having more clubs that dealt with science initiatives,” Riley said. “We’re now in our second year, and every year, we name a certain disease and read articles, studies and research the nature of these diseases. Then the girls attempt to write and present their own abstracts which they may present at the GIDAS Conference at the University of Michigan.”

Marian High School students work to build machines as part of the school's new STEM club, which introduces students to professionals working in fields such as engineering, science, and math. Photos by Marian High School

Marian High School students work to build machines as part of the school’s new STEM club, which introduces students to professionals working in fields such as engineering, science, and math.
Photos by Marian High School

At the GIDAS Conference in June, students can present their findings to other students from around the state and hear experts who are conducting research in the field.

“It’s important for these students to have these experiences outside the classroom and see how science is done at a university level,” Riley said. “Students are seeing males and females in the field, meeting students who might not be in their science class.”

Riley said the greatest benefit to having clubs such as GIDAS and other science clubs at Mercy is to boost students’ self-determination to learn more about the topics.

“It’s really self-directive, and I’m there to oversee it,” Riley said. “That’s what grabs a lot of these girls, the low-pressure environment. They are exposed to genetics at a high level, but they don’t have the pressure to present work on a specific project. They do this because they want to. It’s so exciting when they push themselves to learn.”

Teachers agree the best way to close the gender gap in high-paying fields such as medicine and engineering is to allow girls to explore such topics and feel comfortable building an interest.

“If we want to see more women in these fields, we need to start exposing them to these topics at an early grade level, and with a wide variety of topics,” Riley said. “That way, they don’t pigeonhole science as one thing. It ignites interest and decreases the intimidation they might have about being a girl and getting into these topics.”

At Livonia Ladywood High School, 18 percent of the student body participates in a dual-enrollment STEM program with Madonna University, Schoolcraft College and the University of Detroit Mercy, said Tracey Mocon, Ladywood’s head of school. The hands-on classes allow students to earn college credits.

“We have an engineering partnership with UDM, where we have an engineering and graphics class taught at Ladywood,” Mocon said. “With technology courses, we have computer programming and web design courses.”

Ladywood offers a design and engineering workshop in which students construct a vehicle — in collaboration with UDM Engineering — that can be operated underwater. The Ladywood students work with the college students and professors to design and build the vehicle, combining technical design, engineering and robotics.

Mocon said the key to high school science is to give students a curriculum that shows them what the work will be like at the college level, and use that to springboard into a career in STEM fields.

“It’s important to get girls involved,” Mocon said. “When they go to college, we want to give them an advantage. To get them really engaged, you have to give them handouts and experience in these fields.

“I think it’s important for the schools these girls attend to give them these opportunities. It’s important for people to realize that these young ladies are successful in careers when they go to great universities and colleges and have the opportunity to excel. Then we’ll see real change in the numbers associated with these fields.”