SMWC’s emphasis on STEM skills is a key ingredient to student success

September 25th, 2012 | SMWC

SMWC student in science lab

When some of us think back to our first jobs, there wasn’t a computer in sight. Now, from restaurants to retail, computers are on every desk and in every hand. They permeate our society and are on almost every list of job qualifications.

Of the 20 fastest growing industries, 15 have a basis in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. From the bank to the doctor, bridges to mobile phones, STEM-related decisions profoundly impact life on every level. Simply driving down the street involves civil engineering, computers, chemistry, physics and biology.

“There is a national need for more STEM people,” said Dottie L. King, Ph.D., president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC). “One of the best ways to grow the field is to grow women in the field.”

With women comprising more than 50 percent of the U.S. population, it is more important than ever to generate and maintain their interest in STEM fields. To successfully compete in the global economy, to effectively navigate our technology-based world, women need to be encouraged to develop these skills.

“These fields represent key leadership opportunities with high earning potential,” said King, who holds both a bachelor’s and a master’s in mathematics.

The idea isn’t to make young women with no interest magically develop a love for STEM. If she dreams of being an artist, she should paint, draw and design. But, even if for a moment, she dreams of discovering planets, programming computers or mapping the human genome, then she needs all the encouragement society can give.

“As a math teacher at Terre Haute South high school, I encourage my female students to pursue a career in mathematics or science,” said Darci Rector Marchese, who earned both her bachelor’s and master’s in education from SMWC. “I think it is very important that girls have the support and encouragement from their parents and teachers, so they are not threatened by stereotypes.”

students in STEM workshop
Female students participate in STEM-themed workshops, like these examining a cow's heart.

Like Marchese, King believes that cultivating a love for STEM subjects early on will help motivate young women to excel in math and science. At the College’s annual Expanding Your Horizons conference, focused entirely on middle school girls, female experts show participants how to program robots, create chemical reactions or examine horses. The excitement is contagious and, hopefully, lifelong.

Many studies, including one by Hardwick Day, show that women’s colleges are ideal incubators for these skills. STEM majors at women’s colleges are less likely to switch out of a STEM-related major and are more likely to earn a graduate degree in their field. “A women’s college education, a Woods education, is liberating,” King said. “Our students have the freedom to explore science, math and technology in small classes where they don’t have to wait for or share high-tech equipment. Working with engaged faculty, they create their own experiments and drive their own research. These opportunities result in well-rounded scholars, who graduate with superior knowledge and experience.”

Many foundations readily agree with King. In fact, they support SMWC’s mission by recognizing many of the College’s innovative initiatives:

chemistry student
SMWC students use upgraded technology and new equipment in the science labs, thanks in part to a grant from Pittcon.

With SMWC’s solid liberal arts foundation, students’ knowledge and abilities are bolstered with superior critical-thinking, problem solving and communication skills. They have access to incredible opportunities that can unleash their potential in STEM fields:

  • Students majoring in science must complete an extensive undergraduate research project, excellent preparation for graduate study.
  • The technology club, funded by a seed grant from the National Center for Women in Information Technology, allows students of all majors to learn how technology skills apply to any field.
  • Students earned scholarships and networked with female technology leaders at the Indiana Celebration of Women in Computing Conference in February 2012.
  • SMWC joined the international initiative, NeXXt Scholars, to provide young women from predominantly Muslim countries opportunities to earn STEM-related undergraduate degrees from U.S. women’s colleges.
  • SMWC students won three of 12 prestigious summer 2012 internships at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

SMWC’s emphasis on opportunity is the hallmark of a women’s college. Surrounded by positive and powerful female role models, these students become creative, critical thinkers in both the arts and sciences. “Our mission is to empower women through education,” King said. “When a woman finds her voice, she is forever changed.”

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