STEM Workshops Debut

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, November 14, 2014

In the United States, women hold fewer than 25 percent of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs, even though they comprise 57 percent of the work force. At UC Irvine, efforts are underway to render those statistics obsolete.

A group of first-year and transfer students – referred to by event moderator Debra Richardson as “freshwomen” – converged on the Calit2 Auditorium last week for the first in a three-part series called "Changing the Face of STEM.”

Sponsored by UCI ADVANCE and Calit2, the program, “Resources and Advice from Upperclass(wo)men,” featured a panel of five accomplished young women who are succeeding in historically male-dominated fields. Four are current UCI student leaders with science and technology majors, while the fifth runs her own microfluidics company.

The kickoff event was introduced by Douglas Haynes, UCI vice provost for academic equity, diversity and inclusion, and director of the ADVANCE program. ADVANCE seeks to promote an inclusive campus culture through peer-to-peer collaboration and education.

“These workshops are meant to broaden participation in STEM majors with the idea of growing the innovation workforce,” Haynes told the audience. “We believe the best way to achieve this is to reach out to women who are interested in science and want to major in scientific fields. We want to raise awareness of the possibilities.”

Richardson, UCI informatics professor and a champion of women in technology, shared STEM’s dismal female inclusion rates, saying the percentage of women studying technology decreases by about one-half percent each year. “So by 2043, at the current pace, less than 1 percent of the global tech workforce will be female. Do we think that’s a good idea?” she asked the group, eliciting a resounding "NO!"
The disparities are almost non-existent in high school courses, but really begin to emerge in higher education, she said. More than half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in science go to women, and women receive 43 percent of math and statistics degrees. “But when you look at engineering and computer science, it’s about 18 percent. And these are fields that are booming right now and fields we want women to be involved in.”

These statistics matter, Richardson said, because technological innovation benefits from multiple perspectives, including those of women. STEM fields also promote leadership, she said. “One way of changing the culture is changing the mix of the people involved.”

The five panelists included: Zepyoor (Zepy) Khechadoorian, a second-year double major in physics and engineering; Chethana Nair, a fourth-year computer science and engineering major; fourth-year biology major Diane Shin; Angela Li, a fourth-year dance and computer science double-major; and Arlene Doria, who earned bachelor’s, masters and doctoral degrees here at UCI and is the CEO of startup company Defineqa.

The women shared stories of choosing majors, facing obstacles and remaining committed to their goals. They also suggested strategies to help those in attendance find success.

Khechadoorian recommended participating in research programs. “It’s a different experience than the classroom,” she said. “You get to spend more one-on-one time with the professor, you get to work in smaller groups with older students and you can talk to them about graduate school or classes you may need to talk down the road. I also think it’s more fun than classwork. It doesn’t feel like homework because you get to choose a project and work on it.”

Nair, who is president of the Society of Women Engineers and an ICS peer advisor, also suggested the benefits of research. “It helped me learn a lot of new skills but [you’re not doing it] for the grade, so you don’t mind learning it.”

She also advocated for having and displaying confidence in oneself. “Have you noticed that when the teacher asks a question, the guys in the class say it with so much confidence, even if they don’t know what they’re talking about?” she asked, inspiring laughter. “You might have a better answer than what they said but you’re hesitant and they’re not afraid to try, to speak up, even if they’re wrong.”

Meeting challenges head-on was an oft-repeated theme. Shin recalled an introductory biology class where the professor told the students to look around and realize that half of them would drop out of the program. “Biology is such an impacted major and there are challenges, like getting that one-on-one interaction with your professors and getting the help you need,” she said. “You always have to fight for what you want.”

Doria, the entrepreneur, remembered her first job out of college. At a training session with other (male) engineers, the presenter ignored her questions, focusing his attention on her male counterparts instead. “Later, I found out that the others had received an email listing additional resources in the company and he didn’t send it to me,” she said.

“The funny thing is, I think women are basically so much more creative than men, we’re as smart as or even smarter than men. If you just familiarize yourself with engineering, you will understand it just as well as, or better than men, and you’ll add that creativity to the discipline.

“I’m very hopeful and positive that things are changing and there will be more and more women making an impact in our field.”

For Li, the dance and computer science major, who is also co-president of Women in Information and Computer Sciences (WICS), the challenge is finding time in a very busy schedule. “My goal is to achieve this dance and computer science blend. I’m taking classes in both so that takes a lot of time,” she said. “There are just some things that you have to sacrifice or you have to push through in order to achieve your passions. Those things are worth it because they make you happy.”

Khechadoorian mentioned that her non-engineering friends often seem more carefree. “They have a lot more free time, I’m noticing,” she grinned. “My workload is heavy but I think it’s worth it. I feel like if I switched to another major I’d be bored.”

Suggestions for audience members included finding mentors, staying organized, taking classes in lots of areas, utilizing UCI’s numerous resources, forming support groups and taking time to de-stress. “Take a pause, smell the flowers, do something that you enjoy,” advised Shin. “You will struggle, but [you should] live your life at the same time.”

Two more events in the series are on tap for next year, one in the second quarter and the final one in the third quarter. “Internships and Research Opportunities” is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, and Entrepreneurial and Career Opportunities for Wednesday, April 15. Both will take place in the Calit2 Auditorium.