“For me, sharing my love for science and engineering with the girls is perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of my job and my life.”
– A testimony from Melissa K. Cassel, STEAM Town USA Volunteer
Melissa K. Cassel
Why STEAM Town USA is important: role models, STEM education, and project-based learning
To many who know my parents, a computer scientist and civil engineer, it may seem to be no surprise that I, too, am an engineer. However, as a child, what I wanted to be when I grew up closely mimicked the women in my life who I viewed as role models. At 6, I wanted to be a violinist like my older cousin, Laura, and by 12, I wanted to be a veterinarian like our family friend and veterinarian, Dr. McKinstry.
However, in high school, I attended an engineering event for high school girls at UPenn hosted by current female students in engineering. The students I met at the event did not resemble the awkward engineers I saw on TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, but instead, they were like me and became my mentors and role models in high school. It was then that I finally decided I would be an engineer. As someone who was raised by two engaged and involved parents who encouraged me to pursue math and science, why did it take me so long to decide I want to study chemical engineering and become a chemical engineer?
My colleague, Samantha Albright, and I explored the topic of STEM education’s inability to reach women and minorities after building and growing the STEAM Town USA program in Baytown. We were selected from over 1000 abstracts to present our findings at last year’s National Society of Women Engineers Conference, WE17, in Austin, which I will summarize below.
We were intrigued to find that 20% of all U.S. jobs require a high level of knowledge in any one STEM field and that STEM job growth continues to outpace all other job growth at rates that cannot continue to be filled by the current demographics in STEM (predominantly male and predominantly white and Asian), or more simply, as Dr. Freda Kapor Klein explains: “The nation is suffering from a lack of full participation in STEM.” Although University of Wisconsin Professor Janet Hyde has shown that there is no statistically significant difference in one’s mathematical ability based on gender, another study by Accenture has shown that 60% of girls believe that STEM subjects are too difficult to learn, and therefore we lose women in engineering before they even give STEM careers a chance.
This belief that STEM subjects are too difficult to learn is grounded in how we raise girls, compared to boys. Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, argues that girls (and women) are disproportionally harmed by fixed mindsets, the view that skill and knowledge is innate and cannot be increased, contrasted with growth mindsets, the view that one can learn anything if they put in the work, practice, and effort. This is because, as early as elementary school, parents and teachers tend to provide boys – who are more prone to acting out – with effort-based feedback when they fail (“try harder”) and ability-based feedback when they succeed. Meanwhile girls are more likely to receive feedback that their failures are based on ability and success due to good behavior, rather than ability or effort.
And because of this fixed mindset, women are more likely to drop out of STEM and other challenging subjects if they perceive they do not have the innate ability to succeed in STEM. In fact, Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard, wanted to explore why men outnumber women in economics 3:1. To her surprise, she discovered that women who earned Bs were half as likely as those who earned As in introductory economics to continue to study economics. However, men who earned Bs were just as likely as men who earned As to continue to study economics. It’s no secret that economics, as well as STEM disciplines, grade on a tough curve, but this curve means that women are self-selecting out of STEM because they fear delivering imperfection in these ‘hard’ fields.
In STEAM Town USA, we work with 12-15 3rd grade girls at four schools in Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District every month on comprehensive hands-on STEAM projects that deliver value and understanding through applied learning, teamwork, and project-based learning. STEAM education, or Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, seeks to engage students to show them what engineering really is: having a passion for solving problems and understanding how and why things work. Our volunteers, primarily 20-35 year old female engineers, scientists, and college students, seek to demonstrate that STEM careers are accessible to girls, defying stereotypes that boys and men only have the math and science aptitude that is critical to success in STEM. Furthermore, engaging the A (for Arts) in STEAM challenges students to not just be good scientists and engineers, but also to think innovatively, communicate effectively, and market and present their ideas to their peers, teachers, and volunteers.
One of the most important parts of the STEAM Town USA program is providing STEM mentors for the students. When I was in college at the University of Minnesota, the university screened the documentary, Miss Representation, which centered on the quote, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and discussed how young girls and women need and want positive role models, but that the media has neglected its unique opportunity to provide them (think The Big Bang Theory). Without STEM role models, girls fail to recognize STEM fields as welcoming careers for women. Just as it took my STEM role models at UPenn to show me that engineering was an exciting career and welcoming to women, my team of volunteers and I make it a priority to be STEM role models and develop relationships with these girls, so they are encouraged when challenged and do not fear failure.
I am always encouraged by the growth of STEAM Town USA. As a result of our talk at the SWE Conference last year, Kohler’s engineering outreach organization is developing a STEAM Town USA program for Wisconsin elementary schools, and one of my colleagues in Brazil is looking to bring components of STEAM Town USA to her city.
My experience with STEAM Town USA
I fell in love with the STEAM Town USA program back in 2016. It had been less than a year since I started my full time job with ExxonMobil, and I was attending a women’s lunch for the United Way, which featured guest speaker, Suzan Deison, CEO, President, and Founder of the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce.
She discussed many topics, but when she discussed a STEM and Arts after school outreach program for third grade girls in 10 schools in HISD, Conroe, and Spring, whose only constraint to growth was volunteers, I knew I had found my calling to bring STEAM Town USA to the community surrounding my workplace in Baytown, Texas.
I remember our first session at Travis Elementary our first year – the girls seemed a little skeptical of the program asking questions like why they had to stay after school and do more work when they could be at home playing, and then we got to the first activity where they are asked to do long division to estimate the number of homes needed in a town with a given population.
We received a lot of random guesses and “I don’t know”s and even some blank stares. The teacher in the classroom said, “They don’t learn long division in the third grade.” But just because they don’t doesn’t mean they can’t. Within 10 minutes or so, we simplified the problem so that the girls could solve it and apply it to the other problems. In future after school sessions, the girls applied what they had learned and determined the cost of making puppy shampoo and at what price it should be sold from the price and quantity of its ingredients and the value of their labor.
In a later unit on renewable and nonrenewable resources, the girls determined how many hours they would have to work to pay for gasoline to travel a certain distance with cars of different MPG ratings (Lamborghinis and Ford F-150s were popular initial selections until they realized they could work fewer hours to pay for gas if they drove a sedan).
All of these problems are problems they wouldn’t learn how to solve in third grade if it weren’t for STEAM Town USA. By the end of the year, all girls had developed a love for the program and therefore a love for STEAM education. The project-based learning opportunities and community application drove the girls to see how careers in STEM can help them make an impact on their community.
At the end of the year, I had a guidance counselor send me an email. She wrote that one of the girls had just moved to the school that year and spoke little English. Because of the mentorship of our volunteers and the camaraderie of a small group of 11 other third grade girls in the STEAM Town program, the guidance counselor told me that she had “blossomed” during the school year.
I remembered working with that student. She was quiet at first, but perhaps one of the best and quickest in the class when it came to solving the math problems, and at the end of the year, she was one of the students who presented on STEAM Town USA at Graduation. Overall, we have seen all of the girls’ confidence increase, as well as their willingness to participate and answer questions.
When we returned the following year to Travis Elementary to work with a new group of girls, we saw the previous year’s students asking us if they could do STEAM Town USA again. The new group of girls, rather than begrudgingly seeing STEAM Town USA as extra homework as the first group did initially, had heard about STEAM Town USA from the older students, and when asked what they would be doing in the first class, they enthusiastically said that they would be learning about science!
The students’ enthusiasm has been incredibly contagious, and after just 1 year at Travis, I was asked to bring the program to three additional schools in Goose Creek. With the help of ExxonMobil engineers and Lee College physics students and faculty, we have been able to work together to bring monthly STEAM outreach to about 50 students in Baytown each year.
For me, sharing my love for science and engineering with the girls is perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of my job and my life.
STEAM Town USA is an after-school program that seeks to increase exposure of third grade girls to STEAM concepts,improve grades and graduation rates, and encourage girls to pursue STEAM careers. The program serves Conroe, Houston,Goose Creek and Spring Branch school districts. We have graduated over 1,500 girls from the program since its inception.