Young woman standing in a room with foam baffles on the walls
Clara Lightheart, SCI-FI camp instructor and Engineering Physics student, toured high school students through the anechoic chamber in the College of Engineering. (Photo: Donella Hoffman)

Women and girls in STEM: Role models make a difference

SCI-FI Science Camps, based in the University of Saskatchewan College of Engineering, offers several camps for girls so they can hone their skills in science, technology, engineering and math. (STEM)

By Donella Hoffman

When Clara Lightheart showed up to help lead a group of high school students at a Saturday engineering camp, she was delighted to see the room nearly half full of young women.

“I was really excited, especially because last semester we only had three girls in the camp,” said Lightheart, who is studying engineering physics at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) and works part-time as an instructor with SCI-FI Science Camps.

“I feel like a lot of times boys get encouraged to go into math and engineering while girls don’t get encouraged to apply and it makes a big difference.”

Because of the ongoing gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, the United Nations has established the International Day of Women and Girls in Science – observed every Feb. 11 as a reminder that women and girls play a critical role in science and technology communities.

“There’s still a lot of obstacles preventing women from joining these fields, so having a day where we can recognize and acknowledge that is important,” said Lightheart.

She has noticed that at times girls will be steered towards the helping professions in health care, rather than STEM sciences.

Tiana Morales Harmon with a plaster rock she moulded during a high school engineering camp. (Photo: Donella Hoffman)

“There’s not as much encouragement and then once you’re there, you see a large class where you’re one of 10 girls. It’s a bit scary and sometimes it can be the last straw for people.”

Having a female-identifying instructor at the front of the room in an engineering camp is one way to offer reassurance to other young women and girls, Lightheart believes.

“If we have an instructor that’s a girl, they understand, ‘Oh, I can be here. I’m not out of place.’”

Maureen Bourke, director of SCI-FI Science Camps – or SCI-FI as it is widely known – has made a point of adding programming specifically for girls – including a coding and robotics club and the DiscoverSTEM conference – in addition to its regular summer camps, year-round science clubs and spring-time school workshops.

“Too often young women take the role of note taker in mixed gender groups,” she said. “In female-focused learning spaces, they are able to explore all roles, including leadership.

“They can stretch themselves and experience success. We hope that they will be able to see themselves in a STEM field.”

Tiana Morales Harmon, a Grade 10 student from Bethlehem Catholic High School in Saskatoon who’s been attending SCI-FI camps since kindergarten, appreciates when she sees a female instructor at the front of the room, as boys were often in the majority among campers when she was younger.

“I think it’s really inspiring to see women in SCI-FI camps. It made me more comfortable when I was talking with the instructors. It’s not that the guys made me uncomfortable, but it was like looking up to an older sister.”

Morales Harmon, one of the young women in the Engineering High School Saturday Club that Lightheart is helping to lead, plans to study biomedical engineering. Having a day that supports women in STEM is a good way to bring forward voices that weren’t always heard.

“Science has been a predominantly male subject because most women were pushed out of the picture and I think it’s important for us to embrace what we’ve missed all these years because women have been discarded and ignored and overlooked.”

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