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Getting young girls interested in STEM at school isn’t “rocket science” | Guest Opinion

Melissa Grytdal, a graduate of Kamiakin High School, now a Processing Development Engineer for Heraeus Comvance.
Melissa Grytdal, a graduate of Kamiakin High School, now a Processing Development Engineer for Heraeus Comvance. Courtesy of Heraeus Comvance

In December 2008, I was flying from Atlanta to spend Christmas with my family in Kennewick and celebrate passing my professional engineering license.

My father pulled me aside and surprised me by gifting me with his slide rule. My dad was an engineer, and his slide rule was a proud memento. There was no fanfare or ceremony, just the two of us. He kiddingly told me it was “time to pass the baton” to me, the second-generation engineer.

He didn’t say much, he didn’t need to. It was clear he was proud that his daughter was following a similar path to engineering.

I held the slide rule, encased in that rough leather cover, his name hand-stenciled in neat letters influenced by his years of drafting. It brought tears to my eyes, and I cherish that gift to this very day. It was more than a slide rule he was passing down to me; it was a symbol and a reminder that my family helped me discover my passion and a direction.

While I was fortunate I had an aptitude for math and science, a gender gap still exists when it comes to girls and STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Although boys and girls tend to have similar aptitudes in math and science during their school-age years, there are less women studying STEM-related majors or entering STEM careers.

I saw the gender gap first-hand. In high school math and science classes, about half were girls. One-third of my college chemical engineering class was female. In the work force, there are many fewer female engineers.

The gender gap is gradually closing, but parents can accelerate it simply by encouraging their own daughters to delve into STEM subjects at school.

Shatter the stereotypes. At an early age, parents should dispel the notion that one gender is “better suited” for a particular school subject or a career. There is no real definition for what a scientist, software coder or engineer should “look like.”

STEM starts at home. Involve your daughter in projects so she can see first-hand “how things work.” When I was twelve, my dad taught me building concepts using a project in our backyard. He and I framed, roofed and completed a barn, so I could bring home the horse I so desperately wanted. Hours spent with a hammer in my hand taught me valuable hands-on skills.

Be a STEM “storyteller.” Talk to your local librarian for biographies of women who have made significant achievements in STEM. The stories of Marie Curie, Sally Ride, Dian Fossey and others can inspire young girls and help them see new possibilities.

Use TV and the web to make STEM fun. The Science Channel, Discovery and NatGeo have lots of interesting and entertaining programs to introduce kids to science, engineering and technology. The popular “How Stuff Works” website is a great way for kids to learn. And YouTube has thousands of videos devoted to science experiments and science projects for kids.

Connect your daughters to inspiring teachers. I vividly remember Mr. Chesterfield, my high school chemistry teacher. He allowed me and a friend to come before school in order to take second year of chemistry. His support enabled me to study for the Chemistry Advanced Placement exam and pass it. Every school has a “Mr. Chesterfield” in the faculty. Seek them out!

Thanks to technology and innovation, the next generation of children will work and live in a more complex and advanced world. Jobs will require greater technical skills. By encouraging girls to explore their interest in science, math and other technical subjects at an early age, they will be better prepared for the job market of the future.

There are young girls sitting in classrooms across the Tri-City region right now, full of promise. What a shame if we don’t do everything we can to reach, teach and inspire these girls to become the next generation of scientists, engineers and innovators. What a loss if an important breakthrough, discovery or innovation never occurs because a girl with true potential lacked the encouragement and guidance at an early age.

As I look at my Dad’s slide rule that he passed down to me, I am reminded that as parents, we need to pass down encouragement and guidance to our daughters. Every girl deserves the opportunity to discover their interests in STEM, develop their talents and unlock their potential. It’s not “rocket science.”

Melissa Grytdal was born and raised in Kennewick, Wash. She is Process Development Engineer for Heraeus Comvance in Buford, Georgia.

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