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February 23, 2014

UC Merced students get girls thinking about STEM careers

A UC Merced program Saturday tried to get about 130 girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math. More than half of the university’s STEM majors are female.

About 130 girls spent their Saturday studying science, engineering and several other complex subjects at UC Merced.

The Society of Women Engineers club on campus rounded up other club support and invited the girls to campus to give them some exposure to subjects that need more attention from women, said Alyson Cabral, the club’s president.

“This is our way to change the stereotype, change what’s been happening, because there needs to be better diversity in the fields,” the 21-year-old mechanical engineering major said.

A U.S. Department of Commerce study from 2013 found women make up just 24 percent of the science, technology, engineering and math workforce.

To help change that statistic, the first-time event dubbed “Expanding Your Horizons” allowed girls from sixth to 12th grades to study subjects that might melt the average brain – web design, engineering, astronomy, architecture and several others. Horizons is a program that has been repeated at many other colleges.

Girls often can be told they don’t have the brains for complex math, Cabral said, adding the lack of role models in the fields of science and math compound the problem. “It’s that perpetual cycle,” she said.

For a girl trying to get her foot in the door, UC Merced might be the right boot to wear. Of undergraduates at the university, 62 percent are first-generation college students and about 51 percent are women. In addition to that, 52 percent are students in the schools of engineering or natural sciences.

Three of the campus’ top five most popular majors are STEM related – biology, computer science engineering and chemistry. The other two popular majors are psychology and management.

Mechanical engineering student Marisol Prado 20, was helping hustle girls around the conference. She said she was in their shoes not that long ago, having grown up without female engineering role models.

The Los Angeles native said she was introduced to engineering by a high school teacher. “I didn’t know engineers existed, I didn’t know architecture existed,” she said. “I was like, ‘I like numbers, I’ll be a math teacher,’ until I went to high school.”

That kind of exposure to new careers was what the day was all about, Principal Julianna Stocking said.

The top administrator at Schendel Elementary had just taken some of her 41 students from Delhi through an astronomy workshop at the university. The girls used their algebra knowledge to study stars.

Stocking said the conference was a good way to show the students that math leads to a variety of careers. “Students are able to see how mathematics are relevant to an actual career – on an everyday basis,” Stocking said.

More than 80 percent of Schendel Elementary’s students are English-language learners, Stocking said, and live in a small town. So exposure to new career paths is good for them. “Just having a UC only 30 minutes away, it really opens their eyes that they have opportunity,” she said.

Some of the girls at Saturday’s conference might have been getting their first exposure to math and science careers. Others were sharpening their skills for their dream jobs.

Laura Reynoso and Xitlalic Alvarado, both sixth-graders at Atwater’s Mitchell Elementary School, sat in one of the classrooms on Saturday. They were thinking about college.

“I want to be a pediatrician,” Xitlalic, 11, said.

Laura, 12, agreed: “Yeah, I want to be a doctor too.”

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