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When Elon University Professor Sirena Hargrove-Leak got her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of South Carolina in 2003, she didn’t know that she would become a sort of poster-child for women’s success in STEM careers.

Nonetheless, she did make her mark by becoming the first black-female to get an advance degree in chemical engineering from the University of South Carolina.

While this is certainly a milestone worth celebrating, the number of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, fields is still very low.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported the number of women in STEM careers, areas that are projected to have major growth, was only 24 percent.

But Hargrove-Leak thinks that even with that low number, there has been small progress in involving young women in STEM classes in schools.

“I remember teaching my first introduction to engineering class at Elon and I only had one female student,” she said.

Last spring, when Hargrove-Leak taught a freshman engineering class, there were eight females in the class.

“It’s interesting because here, it’s completely against the Elon ratio in the engineering classes,” Hargrove-Leak said. “Here, there are more males than females.”

And it’s true across the nation. Surveys from the Higher Education Research Institute found that number of freshman males planning to declare a major in a STEM field was 29 percent. For their female peers, the number was almost half that, at 19 percent.

But for Junior Danielle Cooke, who is majoring in biomedical engineering, the male to female ratio in the engineering school doesn’t bother her anymore.

“At first, I was super intimidated because I expected it to be all girls,” Cooke said. “But in my engineering classes, I’ve had the same group of guys for the three years, so we all know each other.”

While she is the only girl, or the minority, in most of her classes, Cooke said she’s never felt pressure to go out of her way to prove herself because she’s a girl. In fact, Cooke thinks being a woman in this field is actually advantageous.

“I think women offer a different perspective, and that makes the work environment a better place,” she said.

And senior Bio-Statistics major Kimi Peterson said that it makes sense for women to be in STEM classes because they’ve already got the skills.

“Girls are suited to work in science fields, because the field requires people who are organized and more prepared,” Peterson said. “Women usually have those traits.”

According to an article Paul Blundin from EduGuide, girl’s brains tend to be wired to do many things differently from boys when it comes to drawing conclusions, being productive, even handling boredom.

But if girls tend to have traits that would help them be successful in STEM careers, then why aren’t there more females in those fields?

Some argue that it just comes down to lower interests when girls are starting to decide on their fields of study in college.

And Professor of Statistics at Elon Ayesha Delpish says that that’s OK.

“I am a big proponent of women doing whatever they want to do,” Delpish said. “I think that women should do whatever they want to. What I am against is the saying that ‘Oh, you’re a girl and you can’t do that.’”

Initially, Delpish said she was not interested in math and hadn’t thought of a career in math.

“My interest growing up was English,” she said. “English anything. I never paid attention to math, until I didn’t do well on a quiz in math and my teacher said, ‘That’s OK, don’t worry. You have English.’”

It wasn’t until Delpish’s teacher brushed off her low score that she felt challenged to prove that she could be good at math.

“He said it was OK that I didn’t do well, and I wasn’t OK with that, ” she said.

While Delpish felt the push to succeed from that encounter with her teacher, for some girls, the subtle discouragement is often enough to change girls minds from pursuing STEM careers.

Hargrove-Leak thinks this is where being pro-active can be most effective.

“We have to make sure we’re getting the message out [that girls are good at math] as often and as early as possible,” she said. “Most of the work has to be done well before they get to the university.”

That’s why Hargrove-Leak said she includes a service-learning component in her class where her Elon students go to local elementary schools to perform hands-on projects with the kids.

In this setting, where kids perform small experiments and design challenges, Hargrove-Leak said that there are just as many girls in these classes as boys.

And that is true for most classrooms in the country, even well into high school.

65 percent of boys took Algebra 1 in their ninth or tenth grade year. http://infogr.am/4b6e0c524b8a-0024

65 percent of boys took Algebra 1 in their ninth or tenth grade year.

A study by the Civil Rights Data Collection showed that in 2012, the number of boys and girls taking Algebra 1 courses in ninth and tenth grade in high school was about equal – 65 and 64 percent, respectively.

But that number eventually drops off once students step onto campus.

In order to offer solutions to the gap between males and females in STEM fields, strides have been taken to close the numbers.

In May 2013, the White House announced a fiver-year STEM Education Strategic Plan, which would make STEM classes a priority in education and address how to get more women involved in STEM careers.

But even with this assistance, Hargrove-Leak said it is going to take more effort to get women involved in STEM and that’s where she said mentors could help.

“Women understand that there are so few of us,” she said. “They understand that it takes a certain personality and a certain drive. So that’s where mentors and role models in the field can help.”

Hargrove-Leak said if there were more women succeeding in these fields, they would serve as an inspiration to young girls that having a career in STEM is worth it. She points to herself as an example.

“Look at me,” she said. “I did it, so why can’t these ladies?”

Ultimately, there is no right way to increase the number of women interested in STEM, but with small steps, it could propel women into success in the future.

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