Preparing the Next Generation of Female Stem Leaders

At some schools, science and technology courses are a curriculum offering. At others, they are a part of a formal program. At Paul VI Catholic High School, preparing students for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is a mission.

The private school in Fairfax (moving to a new campus in Loudoun County in 2020) has made it a priority to prepare students for science and technology careers, especially girls and minorities who traditionally have been underrepresented in these fields. The school, which aims to make sure that students “aren’t just ready for college,” but for life, is already being recognized for its efforts in promoting STEM education.

In 2018, the Paul VI won the College Board’s AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award, which recognizes schools that are closing the gender gap and engaging more female students in computer science coursework. It was the first year the award was given out, and only 167 schools out of 18,000 earned the recognition. Schools honored with this award have expanded girls’ access in AP Computer Science courses and have either 50 percent or higher female representation in one of the two AP computer science courses, or a percentage of the female computer science examinees meeting or exceeding that of the school’s female population.

“We are honored by this recognition and are proud of our female students studying computer science for their achievements,” said Dr. Tom Opfer, principal at Paul VI “We are blessed to have Mrs. Allison Granstedt as our teacher. She has visionary leadership; she inspires and encourages all our students to study computer science. We’re committed to continuing to provide our female students with access to AP Computer Science (APCS) courses to help prepare a more diverse workforce in critical STEM jobs.”

Although women today are getting more recognition for their work in science and technology, overall, women account for a minority of the world’s researchers, according to 2018 data from the United Nations Unesco Institute for Statistics. And the Society for Women Engineers (SWE) reports that “women have increased their numbers in many professions previously dominated by men, including law, business, medicine, and other STEM fields in the U.S; however, the number of women in engineering in the U.S. has not increased since the early 2000s.”

From 2006 to 2014, SWE figures show, the percentage of female freshmen intentions to major in engineering, math, statistics, or computer science more than doubled – but was still just 7.9 percent, a far lower number than the 26.9 percent for males. Once in the workforce, SWE statistics show, 26 percent of computer scientists are women, only 13 percent of engineers are women, and just 17 percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty in engineering are women.

But the teachers who are working with the next generation of leaders say that it’s not for lack of interest, as their female students definitely are excited about STEM careers. Granstedt, an AP computer science teacher at Paul VI, says she was “delightfully surprised” by the honor of the AP award, but the school has not struggled with female participation in the AP course or even the coding club, which was “headed by two talented young women.”

A success marker for the program is that “the APCS A class offers differentiation as students work at their own pace through an online tutorial, with group activities to drive home crucial computing concepts,” Granstedt says. “The APCS Principles curriculum is based on Project Lead the Way, which offers scaffolding as students learn how to solve interesting computing problems. Both programs teach through doing, not listening to lectures.”

Learning this way will benefit society at large, Granstedt says. “Technology is pervasive in the 21st century, so any career our students pursue will involve computers in some way. Our classes help develop computational thinking and problem-solving skills as well as practical programming skills. Everyone benefits!”

Lisa Whiting, a mathematics teacher and the Engineering Department chair at Paul VI, agrees. “The students see the purpose of some of the math and science that they have taken. They can apply it to projects and look ahead to the potential of solving reallife problems such as clean water for everyone.”

Outside the classroom, Paul VI offers activities designed to carry on the interest in STEM. The school has an Engineering Club and Coding Club, and as of this year, a FIRST Robotics program (FIRST stands for: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). “We are quite excited about the new robotics team. Nothing is better than hands-on, real-world technical problems to stimulate an interest in STEM careers,” Granstedt says. “Two young ladies (Sunny Pan & Alexis Denny) are leading the team.”

The opportunities inside the classroom and beyond it are nurturing students’ interest in STEM topics and giving them a head start on their collegiate-level academic pursuits. Whiting says that students in the engineering program have enjoyed it, and last year, “9 of our 12 seniors in the program went on to study engineering in college.”

But part of a good education is learning not just what works, but what doesn’t. Although she is happy when students pursue a career in engineering, Whiting understands it’s not for everyone. While most of the program participants decided on becoming an engineer, she adds that “some students also realize that engineering isn’t what they want to do in the future, and that is important to their growth also!”