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A word with Angela Hemingway, Idaho STEM Action Center executive director

Angela Hemingway at Idaho STEM Action Center’s offices in downtown Boise. Photo by Fiona Montagne.

When Angela Hemingway was 7 years old, she wrote a book about becoming an astronaut and exploring the universe. In second grade, she got her first telescope, followed by a microscope in third grade, both Christmas presents from parents who supported her passion for math and science.

Now, as executive director of the Idaho STEM Action Center, Hemingway is passing on that love to a new generation. The organization offers support for teacher professional development, workforce development with industry partners and K-12 student competitions.

Hemingway became executive director in August 2015 after working for the State Department of Education where she served as Assessment and Accountability Director.

A skilled educator, Hemingway also spent 14 years teaching in high school and college classrooms. She holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Boise State University, an M.S. in microbiology, B.S. in biology and chemistry, and a teaching certificate in science.

The Idaho Business Review recently sat down with Hemingway to discuss strategies to attract and retain women in STEM careers. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Talk about the STEM Action Center’s beginnings and its role.

STEM Action Center was legislated into existence and exists under the Office of the Governor. The governor oversees our agency directly. I think that gives us a unique perspective because it allows us to not only work with the state department of education, the state board and CTE, it also allows us to engage with the Department of Labor and Commerce and private sector so we can really create mindful connections between industry and education.

Last year there were 6,000 unfilled STEM jobs according to some data from Department of Labor. When you start doing the math around the unclaimed personal income, that is over $350 million that Idaho has missed out on. Those are huge numbers and those gaps are predicted to continue to grow.

We have taken a multi-pronged approach to address this. We need to develop our own workforce internally, so a lot of our opportunities focus on educators in the community who interact with children. We also recognize that as more companies and people are moving to Idaho, we need to provide opportunities within our schools so people say, ‘Wow, they have great STEM opportunities for my child. I am ready to move there.’

 

It is incredible how young kids are now when they start with things like coding. I wrote a story on Hour of Code and it was amazing.

We have 500 Hour of Code events in Idaho. It is just getting kids aware that things like coding are really fun and it allows kids to be creative and do problem-solving. Those are skills they are going to need even if they don’t stay in STEM. It starts with awareness. If kids don’t do STEM are, that’s fine, but they have to know what their choices are.

 

An increasing number of girls are taking part in events like Hour of Code and robotics camps. What are some steps to attract more girls to STEM?

If you look at the numbers, women are 24 percent of the STEM workforce. There is huge opportunity for growth as more women become interested and aware.

Role models are very important, and those don’t have to be female role models. For me, my dad was my first mentor and role model. I’ve had amazing men and women support my career. Just allowing girls to meet a computer scientist or mathematician and see that they get to be creative is very helpful.

Also really important to women is knowing that the job they are doing is making a positive change in the world. Interacting with role models helps girls see that computer scientists and engineers are changing the world for the good.

In Idaho, if you look at the AP calculus test, girls are taking about 48 to 52 percent of the tests. In computer science, that drops to 20 to 30 percent. The girls have the smarts, but how do we get them that awareness and interest.

 

I have heard statistics that girls are often matching or outpacing boys academically until they reach middle school, then they pull back and there is a drop. I am curious to hear your thoughts on that pattern.

The studies do say that girls who choose to leave the STEM pipeline do that in middle school. As you’ve indicated, there are these external pressures that they feel. However, I do still think things are changing in terms of more girls and young women choosing to stay in those pathways. What’s important is for them to see other young women with whom they can network. If these girls have other girls to support them and there is some kind of network like an after-school club, that makes a big difference.

That is something we are trying to do by providing funding for after-school STEM camps that include boys and girls. There are more and more activities like robotics competitions where you see teams of all girls or 50 percent girls. It is something we are working on to encourage girls to be part of this process and find camaraderie. The more we can nurture those types of relationships, the more successful we will be in getting young women interested. But we don’t want to change it so much that we get young men leaving those opportunities. It is finding that balance where we keep both genders engaged.

 

There is also the issue of retaining women in STEM jobs once they have gotten into their careers. This touches on things like office culture. What are your thoughts?

I think step one is awareness that this is an issue and then creating groups or teams of women who can meet at lunch or talk through opportunities and not feel isolated. I know that men are cautious in the world of Me Too right now, but males being willing to mentor junior females who have the potential to move up to leadership roles is important. I think women don’t always recognize their own potential and their own leadership ability.

It is a balance. It is not just about women uniting and creating all-female groups. It is about finding our male champions as well. I think culture shifting is going on, and as more women join these teams and companies see the unique and diverse solutions that the teams create because they have women, over time we will see changes.

 

Following up on your comments about not excluding men, I think all of this ties into larger gender role trends about not locking anyone into particular career paths. Boys and young men see they can be nurses and early-childhood teachers as much as women can be engineers.

You see more books with non-traditional gender roles that do allow boys to see themselves in roles that are more feminized and to see young women in the roles that are more masculine. It is interesting that society as a whole seems to have this understanding that we should engage with students differently and not pipeline them into a particular occupation solely because of their gender. Let them choose. Let them follow their passion.

 

Do you have any final thoughts on women in STEM fields?

Something I have learned about myself, and to some extent women in general, is that there is this fear of failure. I wasn’t good at music, so I didn’t follow that pathway.

When I took this job, Gov. Otter slides over the legislation and says, “Can you start my STEM Action Center?” And I said, “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” I couldn’t imagine even 10 years earlier in my career telling the governor of Idaho that I don’t know how to do this and I don’t know that I will be successful, but I am going to give it my best effort.

As I’ve gotten older, I say that instead of telling young women to behave, we should tell them to be brave. Step out, put yourself out there, take a chance.

 

Idaho STEM Action Center “STEM Matters!” event at the State Capitol building on Jan. 29, 2016. Photo by Otto Kitsinger for Idaho STEM Action Center.

Idaho STEM Action Center stages STEM Matters Day celebration at Statehouse

The fourth annual STEM Matters Day will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 23 at the State Capitol Building.

This free, hands-on educational event explores and celebrates innovations in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics learning and is open to the public.

Idaho elected officials, educators, and students will gather to check out STEM tools and projects. Imagine kids teaching lawmakers how to code, explore virtual reality, design electronic circuits with play-doh, and interact with robots and drones.

The event will include Idaho STEM Action Center, state leaders, advocates like Idaho National Laboratory and the Micron Foundation, STEMeducators and students from throughout the Treasure Valley, and dozens of exhibitors.

Visit STEM.Idaho.gov for more information.

 

About Kim Burgess

Kim Burgess is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.