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Science Education staff testify about the importance of STEM programs to joint New Jersey Assembly committee

The New Jersey Assembly Science, Innovation and Technology Committee and the Assembly Education Committee met jointly at the College of New Jersey on March 20 to hear testimony from experts regarding the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for students in kindergarten through grade 12, and particularly the ways in which female and minority students are being reached through STEM programs both inside and outside of school. Shannon Swilley Greco, senior program associate and Deedee Ortiz, science education program manager, in PPPL’s Science Education Department, were among those experts. Here is their testimony.

Shannon Swilley Greco:

Thank you for allowing me to speak about a subject that is not only important to me, but of great importance to the State of New Jersey. 

Today we’ll hear from some of the most successful agents of change in STEM education in New Jersey. But how do we know they’re successful? I’ll leave it to them to share their particular measures of success, but I can tell you about what research shows is effective in developing and diversifying the STEM pipeline to strengthen New Jersey’s “Innovation Workforce.” 

My name is Shannon Swilley Greco and I am a senior program associate in the Science Education Department of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. I’ve studied the effectiveness of STEM outreach and education programs for more than 15 years.

We need these programs. A Presidential report in 2012 found that if we only train scientists and engineers at the rate we are now, we’ll be short 1 million workers over the next decade. The U.S. Department of Commerce in 2011 showed that although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. Representation of women in engineering in particular is bad – about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women, but only 13 percent of the engineering workforce is female. 

Underrepresented minorities hold even fewer of these jobs. 

Where are we going to get these 1 million workers? Those statistics on women and minorities is a big hint. 

Females make up 47 percent of the population taking high school physics. Black and Hispanic 27-29 percent; and 21 percent of physics bachelor’s degrees; 7 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Black. 

That’s the biggest drop and it keeps dropping from there. These data are for Physics, but the under-representation is profound in all the STEM fields. 

I study “stickiness” of “Undergraduate Research Experiences.” That is, do they “stick” with the field once they’ve spent a summer (or more) with us? We have programs like this at PPPL, but I’ve run others at Princeton University, as well. 

The answer is, it IS sticky. We know this because we see 92 percent of PPPL undergraduate research interns go on to graduate school and 81 percent of our interns enter the STEM workforce, which no one else tracks. 

For all the programs of this kind across the country, the rates are between 50 and 70 percent going on to graduate school. Gains from these programs are even more pronounced for underrepresented minorities. 

So the key is, how do we broaden the talent pool and pour it into the pipeline in the first place?

Robert Tai, author of my favorite STEM Education article Eyeballs in the Fridge, studied sources of early interest in STEM. He found 65 percent of STEM professionals became interested before middle school. Some say it’s 75 percent for women. 

Tai found the males in the study reported an intrinsic interest as the primary source of interest, 57 percent, and females cited education experiences as the source, 52 percent. 

Imagine we provide more of those quality STEM education experiences in middle and high school to more people – people who don’t have access now. We could start to fill that “innovation workforce” gap. 

It may be one experience that sparked the interest, but it takes countless experiences to confirm it and provide opportunities to explore and develop that interest. One negative experience can discourage a girl from pursuing a STEM career, but the more, strong positive experiences she has can inoculate her against the negative. 

I like the term “pathways” better than “pipeline”: it’s often meandering, and there are lots of ways in and lots of ways out. 

My own experience: I loved science and math, and I wanted to be a chemist, then a chemical engineer. When I got to college, a STEM major told me how they never left the lab and everyone was antisocial. I missed travel and liked to talk to people, so I changed my major to international studies. Then I temped at Princeton University and met Dan Steinberg, Director of Education Outreach for the Princeton Center for Complex Materials. He saw my potential for a career in STEM education and encouraged me. I found myself back in a STEM related track. I slipped off the path (or out of the pipeline?) and wandered back to it. 

These programs help young people find that path and guide them along the way. Thank you.

  

Deedee Ortiz:

Good morning and thank you for this opportunity to address you today. 

My name is Deedee Ortiz, and I am the Program Manager for the Science Education Department at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). In this role I promote the laboratory’s work in fusion energy research, and engage the community through a variety of STEM initiatives. While my audience mostly consists of the general public, I, as the rest of my team, have a particularly strong interest in students, especially those traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. 

As my colleague Shannon Greco already stated, the number of women in STEM fields, which has grown in recent years, is still not where it should be. This is where I will introduce you to a particular STEM initiative, geared towards facilitating that growth. 

Tomorrow, over 750 young women, grades 7 through 10, from about 75 different schools in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and a group from as far as Mt. Rainier, Maryland, will be at Princeton University to attend the Young Women’s Conference in STEM, as we celebrate its 18th year in a row. For reference, this conference first began at PPPL in 2001, with about 150 young women. 

They will have a very busy, yet educational and fun, day ahead of them. It will begin with a hands-on session with a host of exhibitors, where they will experience state-of-the-art scientific and engineering experiments and projects. From the FBI Evidence Response Forensics Team analyzing blood splatter, bone fragments and bullet trajectory, to Lockheed Martin’s fighter jet technology. From a 3D printed life-sized model of a human brain with special goggles that will allow them to see “inside” the brain, courtesy of Liberty Science Center, to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. And of course, there will be plasma physics!

New this year, a representative from Princeton University’s Office of the Provost will be on-hand to discuss Pathways to College, because it’s never too early to think about college. Especially when in an environment exposing all of the STEM opportunities that a college education can potentially unlock! 

There will be a panel discussion of women in a variety of STEM fields, each discussing their unique path to/through STEM, and how students can learn from their journey. 

The conference will end with a keynote lecture by Dr. Tammy Ma, a plasma physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. If the numbers for female representation in STEM fields were not already sobering, it is even more so in plasma physics, where the percentage of female plasma physicists is at a mere 7 percent. 

During the Young Women’s Conference, the students will network with each other, seeing for themselves the tremendous number of young women interested in STEM. They will also network with professional female scientists and engineers, talking one-on-one with them about their love of science and some of the challenges they encounter. 

I wish that opportunities such as these were available to me when I was younger, which is why, if you don’t mind, I’m going to share a short story with you. When I was in middle school, science was my favorite subject. Even though I never had a female science teacher, I was fascinated by all of the cool things we were learning. During my class, the boys were the “scientists” and the girls were the “assistants.” The boys would perform the fun hands-on experiments and the girls were tasked with organizing the equipment, observing the experiment, taking notes, and then putting things away as part of “the team.” Needless to say, I quickly grew bored and focused my interests elsewhere. 

On a personal level, I feel that it is my responsibility to continue to showcase successful female scientists and engineers to the attending students every year, and to continue to grow this conference so that even more young women can experience the world of opportunities that this event makes them aware of. The connections that these students make with these scientists and engineers may take root, and potentially jump-start their own future careers in STEM. Equally as important, is the connection that our scientists and engineers make with the students. These STEM experts know what it takes to grow and thrive in an environment that has been largely unaccommodating to women, and this is their opportunity to provide guidance to the next generation of female scientists and engineers.

The Universe works in mysterious ways. Managing this program for the past few years has awakened that little girl in me that loved science so much, and while I didn’t have an opportunity like the Young Women’s Conference, it has become my passion to provide that opportunity to the young women of this generation. My purpose in STEM, now, is to showcase the pathways that are possible. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the success of the Young Women’s Conference in STEM is due to a variety of factors, but mostly the exhibitors, the breakout and keynote speakers; the female scientists and engineers from universities, corporations, government institutions and volunteers, who year-after-year selflessly give of their time to provide a day of inspiration. For that, we are grateful and proud to join others at the forefront of this initiative so that we may offer as many opportunities as we can, to as many students as we can. 

Thank you for your time, and again for the opportunity to testify before you today.

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

 

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