Graduate student intern Kaitlyn Sarlo sets up an assay to measure protein concentration in a biology lab. (Photo: Contributed)

Anyone keeping up with workforce development issues in the past three decades has heard the constant drumbeat for more employees, especially minorities and women, educated and trained in STEM fields.

“We’re going the wrong direction,” engineer Sheila Boyington said, discussing efforts to get more girls interested in entering STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. “Studies show about 23 percent were going for science and engineering in 2004, and in 2014, it’s down to 18 percent.”

Despite women’s ability to succeed in these areas, higher education’s attempts to recruit them and industry’s effort to hire them, too few are seriously considering STEM fields as career choices.

“I see the ongoing challenge of engaging women in STEM education every day,” said Deborah Levine, research coordinator at the UTC College of Engineering and Computer Science. “The grant proposals that I assist faculty in writing and submitting to the National Science Foundation all stress inclusion. The NSF made the engagement of young women in STEM education a national priority.”

Tiffany Gibby, manager of GIS and mapping at TVA, said there are few women in her field, especially the computer technology aspect.

“Most résumés we get are male,” she said.

But it’s not for lack of trying. As president of Chattanooga’s chapter of Society of Women in Engineering, Gibby attends national meetings each year, along with 5,000-7,000 women.

“There are more than 500 employers there looking for résumés, including TVA,” she said.

Levine added: “Employers that I talk with continually bemoan the lack of women applicants. That will change only if we increase the number of women in the STEM education pipeline and equip them with both the technical and leadership skills to advance in their professions.”

In many school systems, efforts to prepare and inspire students to enter these fields are focused across the curriculum at all grade levels. Boyington thinks we need to start much earlier than college, or even elementary school.

“We need to reach 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds,” she said.

She pointed out that companies such as Roominate make STEM toys for very young girls

Parents are instrumental in encouraging their daughters to follow their inclinations for STEM subjects.

“My parents were my biggest support system,” architect and engineering manager Heather Adcox said. “They still are. I’ve always wanted to be an architect. I remember saying to my dad that I wished I could draw houses for a living. He said, ‘You can! It’s called an architect.’ An archi-what? From that point on, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was probably in the fourth grade. It helped me to stay focused through college.”

Engineer Priya Boyington. (Photo: Contributed)

Priya Boyington helps market girls’ STEM toy

When Priya Boyington, daughter of Sheila Boyington, heard about a new activity toy for young girls, GoldieBlox, she immediately wanted to get involved in this quest to get more girls into engineering. 

“I was lucky I grew up in a household with engineer parents and attended GPS, where I was encouraged to develop my math and science skills,” industrial engineer Priya Boyington said. “Unfortunately, a lot of girls don’t grow up in the same environment. I know that so many of the most important things in our world are developed by engineers, so women should have a voice in that industry.”

She contacted GoldieBlox inventor and CEO Debbie Sterling. At Sterling’s invitation, Boyington took a six-month sabbatical from work and moved to California to join their team during their key growth period.

“GoldieBlox has been one of the leaders in ‘disrupting the pink aisle’ and breaking down gender barriers in toys,” she said. “If you visit a toy store today, there are still too many stereotypes … which prevent girls from thinking they can do and be anything.”

She is encouraged that many other startup toy companies are now working toward the same mission.

“I really enjoyed my time [at GoldieBlox],” she said. “In less than two years, [they] elevated the conversation to unique ways to engage [girls].”

Adcox also emphasized that teachers play a critical role in steering students. Her instructors at Auburn and GPS were exceptional, she said.

Beyond academic preparation and parental support, Boyington thinks girls must see value in their work. What can engineering or other technical fields do for society? Girls are more interested in designing a building if it is going to house earthquake orphans in Haiti, she said.

“We need to show how it fits in with the bigger picture, contextualize to show how it has impact,” she said. “A one-day coding camp won’t cut it.”

Adcox agreed.

“Architecture is creative problem solving,” she said. “It’s listening to and responding to people. I really and truly believe architecture can make the world a better, healthier place.”

Women are supposedly better communicators than men. This could pay off for women in technical fields.

“I meet with clients, listen to their needs and respond through drawings that help them to accomplish their goals,” Adcox said. “I coordinate with engineers and contractors, and produce a set of instructions on how to build a building. We meet with codes officials to ensure our designs are safe.”

These local women are very satisfied in their STEM careers. But the work of recruiting more women continues. Boyington, who has been following the issue for 15 years, works nationally on STEM education. She serves as senior adviser for STEMConnector.org and is involved with MillionWomenMentors.org, an organization striving to enlist a million mentors for young women interested in STEM. She promotes Learning Blade, a “mid-school level project designed to interest kids in STEM, focused on girls and their interest in helping people.”

Levine is involved in the Women in STEM Storytelling project, which has student teams create videos about women in STEM.

“Our student video projects motivate, engage and self-educate, setting students along new paths year-round,” she said.

We have to do better in making the case for women in STEM fields, Boyington said. It benefits the girls and women with STEM aptitude.

“The workforce is going to demand it,” she said. 

As a child, Georgiana Chitko Kotarski ate dirt. Now, she simply wears it. She chases after her herd of grass-fed cattle and machetes her way through the organic garden on her Sequatchie Valley farmstead. She began her writing career selling magazine articles; then, under mysterious circumstances, she found herself authoring “Ghosts of the Southern Tennessee Valley.” This collection of local stories was honored by Storytelling Magazine. More than 6,000 copies have been sold. She earned her forestry degree from Sewanee, thinking she should make all A’s because of her tree hugging experience. She didn’t. She then completed an MPA at UTC.