79320451For years, there has been an ongoing discussion in this country about the state of STEM education and the viable workforce it produces — and why so few women are part of it.

According to U.S. Department of Commerce data gathered in 2009, women comprise only 24 percent of the workforce employed in fields of science, technology, engineering and math. However, the same data show that women in STEM-related careers earn on average 33 percent more than their counterparts in other fields.

So, while the U.S. Office of Science and Technology and the White House Council on Women and Girls work to increase STEM outreach to women from the federal level, local organizations are doing the same in an attempt to close the gender gap in Colorado.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, program manager for UCCS’ Center for STEM Education, said she doesn’t see a difficulty in breaking into those fields as a woman (she did it herself), rather it’s tough getting girls interested in entering them at all.

“Women make up 53 percent of the nation’s population and 48 percent of today’s college-aged population,” she said. “But in most states, only about 35 percent of STEM degrees are obtained by women and far less in areas such as engineering and computer science.”

Once women get degrees in those fields, she said they seem to have a leg up in the marketplace because of companies’ desire to diversify the demographic makeup of their employees.

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“I think a lot of them would probably find a job more easily than a man,” she said. “And although men in these fields statistically make more money than women, the differential is smaller in STEM fields.”

[pullquote]“What we need to do is change the perception and show girls they really can make a difference with a STEM degree.” – Kathleen Fitzpatrick[/pullquote]Fitzpatrick said the money seems to be less of a draw than it once was. Younger generations are less attracted to “the almighty dollar,” she explained, and more interested in making a difference in the world.

“What we need to do is change the perception and show girls they really can make a difference with a STEM degree,” she said.

To attempt an alteration of that perception, the UCCS Center started the Southern Colorado Girls’ STEM Initiative. The program reaches 500 middle-school girls annually with a goal to interest them in STEM fields through fun activities and after-school programs.

Activities include circuit board construction, a physics lesson with “bungee Barbie,” kitchen chemistry with artificial flavoring creation, underwater roving with robots and other hands-on engineering and science-based activities.

“They need to see how it can translate to a STEM job,” Fitzpatrick said of the program that receives funding from the Women’s Foundation of Colorado.

Fitzpatrick, who coordinates the program as chairperson, said the program’s next event will draw 360 girls from 16 schools across the state to UCCS on Friday, Nov. 14, for a day of activities, experiments, lunch and meeting with representatives from local industry leaders.

The STEM Center has based its programming on research of the 1,600 students who have been tracked through its programs, and Fitzpatrick said those students have declared STEM majors three times over the national average.

“It’s a pretty cool, pretty broad program,” she said. “We’re excited by the results we’re seeing, and we’re really proud of that.”