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  • Dan Powers

NIST Builds ‘Sisters in STEM’ With YWCA Code Jam

Twenty-three middle-school girls from the St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colorado, have logged on to their school tablets and laptops for a special kind of class on a frigid February afternoon: an introduction to coding — a new experience for some of them — and to learn what a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) looks like for women.

NIST scientists Tara Fortier (top left), Marla Dowell (top right), Diana Ortiz-Montalvo (bottom left) and Jeanita Pritchett (bottom right) share their advice and experiences as women in science at the virtual YWCA Boulder County Code Jam event.

Credit: A. Lane, R. Jacobson/NIST

And today they have help from scientists at the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado, including Boulder Laboratory Director Marla Dowell, who oversees communications technology research and serves as the scientific director for the entire campus. Looking at the girls signed on to the YWCA Boulder County video call, Dowell saw herself at that age — curious, eager to learn, but hesitant to speak up in science class. She and her fellow NIST panelists are here to encourage them to try.

“I was just like you,” she told them. “Just try.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM professions are among the fastest growing occupations in the American economy. However, women — especially women of color — are still underrepresented in science and engineering jobs, making up only 29% of those professions in 2017. That gap is particularly pronounced in computer and mathematical sciences. As the computer sciences workforce grew at the turn of the millennium, the percentage of women working in that field dropped from 31% to 25% between 1993 and 2010.

That diversity gap ultimately means that STEM employers are working with a limited talent pool, and missing out on new ideas, perspectives and people, Dowell pointed out.

“To hire the best people, you need a talent pool that is representative of the entire U.S. population, not one that is dominated by one demographic,” she said. “Creating open, transparent and inclusive learning and work environments will help us grow a diverse STEM talent pool.”

And that gap forms early; as early as seventh grade, girls begin saying they’re not good at math, said Debbie Pope, CEO of YWCA Boulder County.

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