Supporting young women in STEM at Nepean High School

By Kyra Wex – 

Sierra Bertignoll-Chalmers, a grade 12 student at Nepean High School (NHS) believes the significant lack of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), is due to social and industrial sexism. Although many industries claim to promote diversity and equality, statistics from the National Girls Collaborative Project prove men dominate STEM industries.

Sierra Bertignol-Chalmers, a grade 12 student at Nepean High School, is an advocate for young women in STEM-related industries. Photo submitted by Sierra Bertignol-Chalmers
Sierra Bertignol-Chalmers, a grade 12 student at Nepean High School, is an advocate for young women in STEM-related industries. Photo submitted by Sierra Bertignol-Chalmers

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), STEM is the largest industry in the world and there is a need for more women in this area.

According to Sierra, discrimination has discouraged many young women from being involved in STEM and discrimination begins at a young age.

“From the encouragement for little girls to play with Barbies versus the oh-so-male Lego, or convincing impressionable young women that social sciences are ‘more up their alley,’ distances young women from their full potential,” says Sierra.

She believes this behaviour reinforces the perceptions of women’s capabilities and leads many girls to avoid STEM-related fields.

According to data from the National Household Survey, women account for 39 percent of university graduates aged 25 to 34 with a STEM degree in 2011, compared with the 66 percent of university graduates in non-STEM programs.

Sierra grew up in a family of technology pioneers and technology recruiters. She spent her time working with computers instead of Barbies and later, attending engineering showcases and seminars at universities.

“I was being encouraged and introduced to STEM industries at a young age,” she explains.

Nepean High School has a range of STEM programs in which female students are enrolled, from the sciences, to mathematics, to computer science programs.

Sierra says the sciences tend to have an equal distribution of males and females at Nepean High School and that positive reinforcement is both present and highly appreciated. Even simple encouragement has had a lasting impression on Sierra. Jeff Dash, her grade nine technology teacher, simply recommended she keep up with tech class. Jovan Stankovic, a math and computer science teacher, introduced Sierra to workshop opportunities at the University of Waterloo that were solely for women.

“There are so many female teachers in the math and science departments,” says Katie Engel, a mathematics teacher at NHS. “Creating an environment where students see women role models specializing in these fields, helps encourage young girls of their capabilities and minimizes the perceptive male dominance.”

She also points out some of the workshops that engage grade nine and ten girls in the sciences and mathematics such as Go ENG Girl camp at the University of Ottawa.

“We are always here to encourage students, support them in their learning, and seek enrichment opportunities if they are strong in the subject,” says Katie.

Nepean High School demonstrates a supportive environment for both males and females to thrive. NHS science teachers Darrell Roberts and Robin Giles reveal hopeful attitudes when explaining the ratio of males to females in their classes.

“Physics was male dominant in years past, but currently my classes are closer to even,” says Darrell.

“I don’t think our class distribution follows the stereotype. My chemistry and biology classes are 50/50,” says Robin.

Sierra explains that some issues can be resolved by encouraging young girls to explore toys or computer programs that would help them gain STEM skills and an interest in STEM-related courses. Then hopefully, some day, the 50/50 split in high school science class will also be mirrored in STEM sectors in Canada and around the world.

Kyra Wex is a grade 12 student at Nepean High School.

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