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SMC reps discuss women in science

Caitlin Housley | Thursday, March 10, 2011

Young women should study biology, chemistry and engineering to increase the female presence in the science field, four Saint Mary’s representatives said on local television Friday.

The women appeared on “Economic Outlook,” a program on the local public television station WNIT.

The show featured Dr. Nancy Nekvasil, chair and professor of the Department of Biology, and Dr. Toni Barstis, professor of chemistry and director of the College’s dual degree engineering program. Erin Heck, a 2008 graduate, and senior Tara Hill also appeared on the program.

The show addressed women’s power to help the nation regain its competitive edge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

“About one third of the U.S. students intending to major in engineering switch majors,” said Phil D’Amico, host of “Economic Outlook” and a member of St. Joseph County’s Chamber of Commerce.

The majority of students who make this switch are not women, D’Amico said, but the panel agreed students should begin education in science courses at a young age to foster interest.

Barstis said sixth to eighth grade is a crucial time to influence children, but she said conversation about STEM classes and careers with children should start even earlier.

“Everyone’s a scientist if they’re curious,” Barstis said.

Nekvasil said STEM classes sometimes are resisted in elementary schools.

“Through no fault of their own, elementary education teachers are not terribly comfortable doing science,” Nekvasil said. “There have been many studies done that show they’re pretty comfortable with English and history, so they spend their day doing that.”

Student are not exposed to STEM curriculum because it does not receive enough attention in the classroom, Nekvasil said.

“Science gets pushed to the end of the day and then maybe 10 minutes and maybe not every day of the week,” she said.

Teachers need to better engage students by supporting interest in the science and using hands-on lesson plans, she said.

Saint Mary’s has dedicated nearly 150 years to educating women in the science field, Nekvasil said, and the College encourages students to push themselves in the STEM fields.

 

“The Department of Chemistry/Physics and the Department of Biology welcome young women to enter and complete our programs,” Nekvasil said. “We promise small classes, individual attention, opportunities for research, opportunities to learn lab skills and opportunities to grow into confident young women. The more women we graduate in biology, chemistry, engineering and math, the more we are contributing to STEM careers in the world.”

With the help of Saint Mary’s curriculum and teachers, Hill said she realized the vast possibilities for careers in the STEM field as she began working toward her biology major.

Hill said she originally feared she would be restricted to careers in either education or medicine by choosing to study science. After her experience in Saint Mary’s classrooms and study abroad, Hill discovered her passion for public health.

Other students should realize the opportunities available in the sciences, Hill said, and outreach programs such as those provided by Saint Mary’s can be a mechanism for educating younger women.

Among these outreach programs was Hypatia Day at Saint Mary’s Feb. 26, when middle school girls attended science classes and labs on campus.

Saint Mary’s will host “Celebrating the Education of Women in Science” Day on March 26 to emphasize the way women can be involved in the field.

“[Science] is not hocus-pocus and it’s not just for men,” Nekvasil said.