School in Tennessee provides support to minority girls in STEM

Image by Research Development and Engineering Command on Flickr

Women are still poorly represented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, despite efforts made over the years in overcoming barriers. A recent report by Girl Scouts of the USA found that although over 70% of girls are interested in STEM subjects at school, many of them do not think that a STEM career is a viable choice.

In order to improve attitudes of girls toward STEM subjects, several single-gender out-of-school time (OST) programmes have been established in the United States. The Harvard Family Research Project has found that these programmes have “increased confidence [of girls] in their math skills, improved attitudes toward and engagement in math, and increased plans to attend or enroll in college”.

Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy

The Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy (CGLA) in Tennessee is a school that focuses on teaching STEM subjects to their students. The school first opened its doors in July 2009, and was inspired by the success of OST programmes.

However, what sets CGLA apart from other schools is that majority of its students come from minority ethnic backgrounds. Carolyn Towns, interim director of CGLA, said that the school attends to a student population that is “78% african american; 20% hispanic”. In addition to that, the school does not require any enrollment qualification.

“During the first two years…the state of Tennessee only allowed charter schools to enroll students who were not proficient on state exams or who were in failing schools,” Ms Towns explained. “Since this past fall, we have been able to recruit any girl who is in our county…and obviously pull from a largely African-American, Hispanic population with high poverty levels.”

Minority women in STEM

It appears that CGLA’s efforts in trying to get minority girls engaged in STEM subjects is on the right track. Recently, the American Chemical Society (ACS) held a symposium to commemorate the anniversary of the first recorded meeting of minority women held in 1975 that resulted in the report: The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science.

The symposium highlighted that even though there have been progress for minority women in STEM, some impediments still remain. Yolanda S. George, who is the deputy director for American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), presented findings from a  National Science Foundation (NSF) study that showed that “the percentage of women of color holding doctorates in science and engineering remains small”.

CGLA’s efforts to support minority girls

So what is CGLA doing to help these minority girls achieve their goals?

The school requires its students to take five 90-minutes long core subjects per day. For example, students will take two science classes a year, two maths classes a year, and so on.

Apart from classes, CGLA organises activities to further engage their students in the subjects.

“All of our field trips are STEM related. We encourage girls to get involved in contests, activities beyond the school day that are STEM related,” said CGLA’s interm director Carolyn Towns. Some of the field trips include visits to Alabama’s air and space museum, local hospitals, and Tennessee aquarium.

But CGLA is doing more than providing girls with a good education.

“We hope to…help [our students] find financial aid to go on to the next level of education, [and also] hope to empower girls to see the possibilities of good, stable lives due to their educational achievements,” said Ms Towns.

CGLA will have their first graduating class next year. Although the school did not conduct any formal survey with its students about their future, Ms Towns revealed that informal conversations with the girls suggest that majority of them are keen to enter health fields.

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