21 years of opening minds and doors

A Prairie Middle School eighth grader dissects a pig heart with guidance from a STEM professional during a workshop that was part of an earlier Open Minds, Open Doors conference at Coe College and hosted by the Grant Wood Area Education Agency.  The conference encourages middle school girls to pursue career fields with foundations in science, technology, engineering and math. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
A Prairie Middle School eighth grader dissects a pig heart with guidance from a STEM professional during a workshop that was part of an earlier Open Minds, Open Doors conference at Coe College and hosted by the Grant Wood Area Education Agency. The conference encourages middle school girls to pursue career fields with foundations in science, technology, engineering and math. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

When my middle daughter, now a high school senior, began to talk about pursuing a degree in biology or chemistry, I was initially surprised. I shouldn’t have been.

She’s always loved math and science. Never, even as a small child, do I remember her telling me she’d like to be a teacher, homemaker or nurse — the top three options voiced by many of her female peers.

Throughout middle and high school, her fascination with science and math has continued, which is unusual. While males and females show roughly equal interest at the elementary level, girls tend to abandon STEM as they age.

Why is my daughter the exception instead of the rule? As much as I’d like to report her interest is due to something we did at home, that wasn’t the case.

What made the difference for my daughter is role models who look like her and encourage her. Specifically, she has two teachers who have never missed an opportunity to tell her that, if she wants a STEM career, she has the ability to do so.

It seems like such a small thing, doesn’t it? But it is such a big deal.

A report last year from the Iowa Governor’s STEM Council found that males received 70 percent of degrees in STEM fields from Iowa’s four-year, public universities. Research by federal agencies indicate that while women hold roughly 50 percent of all U.S. jobs, they comprise less than 25 percent of STEM employees.

That’s why events like the Open Minds, Open Doors half-day conference next week at Coe College are so important. The conference brings more than 500 seventh and eighth grade girls together to explore the possibilities of a career in science, technology, engineering or math. The girls — about 25 from area school districts — are given an opportunity to visit with about 100 professional women working in STEM-related careers who volunteer during the event to present workshops and staff exhibits.

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The program, now organized by Grant Wood Area Education Agency, began in 1996 as an initiative of the local branch of the American Association of University Women. It has long enjoyed support from Coe College.

“About seven years ago the federal STEM initiative provided funding so that GWAEA can now offer exemplary experiences in science, technology, engineering and math,” said Sue Jorgensen, AAUW Cedar Rapids Branch communications director and co-founder of Open Minds, Open Doors. “AAUW appreciates that Susie Green (GWAEA student programs specialist) now wears the cap of coordinator, cheerleader, organizer and fearless leader.”

Even so, AAUW has remained an active participant in the conference by serving on the planning committee and hosting a volunteer luncheon.

“To date, we estimate that over 9,500 girls have attended the conference over the years,” said Carletta Knox-Seymour, local AAUW president. Although STEM conferences like Open Doors, Open Minds are fairly commonplace now, the idea was groundbreaking in 1996.

“We can only guess how many young women pursued careers in STEM as a result,” Jorgensen said.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 339-3144, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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