Lessons Learned from the US News STEM Solutions Conference

Written by Judith Iriarte-Gross, GRITS Collaborative Project Lead and Chemistry Professor at Middle Tennessee State University

As a professor of chemistry and lead of the GRITS (Girls Raised In Tennessee Science) Collaborative Project, I am all about STEM Solutions. I am always looking for a better way to engage my students, to share more relevant STEM activities with the GRITS community and to challenge Tennessee girls to explore STEM education and careers. I was also excited to attend a conference where K-16 educators and students, non-profit groups, and STEM employers are all in one room (or convention center) collaborating for the future of STEM education and the workforce. US News STEM Solutions is not the typical conference that I usually attend as a chemistry professional.

I wore three hats while attending STEM Solutions; professor of chemistry, GRITS lead, and Association for Women In Science (AWIS) representative on the NGCP National Champions Board. The Champions Board meeting was held on the first night and I felt like I was at “home.” To borrow a phrase from Karen Peterson, the Champions Board (as is NGCP) is a true Collaboration Nation. Discussions centered on what we can do to support the work of NGCP and the collaboratives today and sustain its good work in the future.

I wore my NGCP and professor hats during the rest of the conference. I enjoyed working the booth and meeting other Collaborative leads and organizations. While NGCP has a broad reach, our work is not complete! Folks from many states and different organizations stopped by the booth asking about the National Girls Collaborative Project. We shared information and answered questions about who we are and what we do to support girl-serving STEM programs. NGCP also provided us (AWIS, Techbridge and others) with the opportunity to share their booth again true collaboration at work.

In addition to representing NGCP, I had the opportunity to attend sessions during the conference. I was delighted to see the diversity in the program tracks ranging from Higher Education: Fixing the Leaky Pipeline to Workforce Development: The Search for Skills and Talent to K-12 STEM Education: The Primary Focus and to Underrepresented Populations: An Untapped Resource. The first session that I attended was titled We Don’t Hate Math: Closing the Gender Gap. Women and math is an ongoing issue that I face in my general education physical science classroom each semester. I also hear from women students who sometimes are in my office stressing over math problems. I often wonder if our students realize the important role that math plays in every career and in everyday life.

I enjoyed the next session: STEM Majors: Making Those First Two Years Count. I agree with the speakers that the first two years in higher education are critical. This is when students explore majors, meet life-long friends and find mentors. I was surprised that a community college was not represented on the panel, though there was another conference track on community colleges. I started out at a community college and I credit my chemistry professor for encouraging me to major in chemistry. The panel focused on the need to introduce more interactive instruction in the introductory STEM classes. I agree 100%. A professor who lectures for the entire class period loses his/her students to cell phones, Facebook, sometimes newspapers and sleep. The students then complain when they fail the class.  A friend has the following quote on her office door: “I am not a teacher but an awakener.” I don’t recall who said this first but this is the philosophy that we need to prepare our students for the future workforce. I tell my students that I am here to facilitate their learning.  I firmly believe in collaborative (of course!) learning, team work and research. I also recommend that students learn how STEM plays a role in their lives. In other words, show them the applications! All STEM professionals are not writing a long list of numbers on the board or exploding chemicals in a lab. I was texting my new dean throughout this session as new ideas popped into my head. He wants to change the introductory STEM classes on our campus and would have enjoyed this session immensely.

On Wednesday, I looked forward to attending the general (plenary) session called: What Big Employers Want. Unfortunately, from the comments of the presenters, it felt like big employers do not want women STEM professionals. A few weeks before the STEM Solutions conference, a Pew Research report came out stating that 40% of the moms are the primary or only breadwinners for their families. So why did a panelist remark when asked about women in STEM, that men need to support their families? The same speaker also said in so many words that the numbers for women in STEM are not so bad. After all, women are becoming nurses. First of all, this CEO had no clue about the definition of STEM. Health fields are not considered STEM by the National Science Foundation. Next, men are flocking to the nursing field in record numbers. However, I would bet that male nurses get paid a higher wage today than female nurses. In 2009, this was true in Tennessee.  

STEM Solutions? Really? We will not have any STEM Solutions with CEOs who cannot recognize the value that women, underrepresented groups and students with disabilities can bring to the STEM table. We need strong organizations such as NGCP, AWIS, and Girl Scouts and more who DO recognize the critical need to bring ALL to the STEM table. Let’s hear their thoughts on STEM Solutions. I don’t think that anyone in these organizations would say that men need to support their families. Without everyone at the table, we (the United States) will not continue as a world leader.