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“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a common question to ask children. But what if, when you answered, you were told you couldn’t do that? And what if the fact that you couldn’t do it was because you were a girl?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 1 in 3 adults holds a bachelor’s degree or higher. The National Science Foundation reports that 57.3% of bachelor’s degrees in all fields in 2013 were earned by women. While college degree attainment rates are higher for females, that is not the case within the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Women earn 17.9% of the degrees awarded in computer sciences, 19.3% in engineering, 39% in physical sciences, and 43.1% in mathematics. 

The Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks employs 174 full time people, 60% of whom have degrees in a STEM field and hold STEM positions. Of those degree-holders at the EERC, 17% are female. 

Experiences in childhood can greatly influence education and career decisions. The female scientists and engineers at the EERC shared their early experiences in their paths to earning STEM degrees.  These women represent a full spectrum of backgrounds and generations. Some graduated from college in the 1970s, and others as recently as 2016. Answers to the question “What DID you want to be when you grew up?” varied from architect to interpreter to marine biologist. 

“My earliest memory of wanting to pursue a STEM career was around age ten,” said Kerryanne Leroux, Senior Chemical Engineer. “I wanted to be an astronaut and the first person to walk on Mars.” 

“I grew up in a large family of eight kids,” said Patty Kleven, Laboratory Analyst. “My siblings went to college if they knew exactly what they were pursuing—such as teaching or nursing. It wasn’t an option for us to explore in higher education, so I had never really thought about it. I wasn’t able to pursue college courses until I was employed at the EERC—after I was married and had children.” 

Even with their differences growing up across different generations, they all have one thing in common: at one point in their childhood, they were told science or math wasn’t for girls.

 

Negative Messages


Some of their experiences hearing this message weren’t necessarily deliberate.

“I was never told directly I couldn’t do something,” said Janelle Hoffarth, Laboratory Analyst. “In fact, I was told the opposite—that I could do whatever I wanted. But women working in these fields wasn’t demonstrated largely in society.”

Amanda Douglas, Research Geophysicist, said, “I wanted to be a civil engineer growing up, but our middle school shop teacher gave the boys in our class extra projects. The boys were asked to build duck houses after class, and we never were. It’s not a blatant ‘This class isn’t for you,’ but it still sends a message that girls don’t belong. This prevented me from taking classes like Computer-Aided Drafting in high school that would have helped foster my desire to be an engineer.” 

Others shared very direct messages they received in childhood.

“I told my high school counselor I wanted to be a wildlife biologist, and he flat-out told me, ‘That’s not a field for girls,’” said Janet Crossland, Research Scientist. “I had always liked being outdoors and struggled in school as a child. It was all I ever wanted to do, and I was devastated by his statement.”

 

Family Support


Despite these obstacles, these women all persisted in their interests in STEM education. They were encouraged by a female family member or were influenced by a story from another female they admired and found that positive reinforcement meant more than the negative messages. The weight of those supports was greater than deliberately oppressive statements from teachers (like being told “That’s not for girls”) or the lack of examples of women in STEM fields.   

“While working on a project for the middle school science fair, my mom ran across a company that provided seismographs for schools,” said Douglas. “She helped me write the grant to get one for my school.”

“My mom encouraged my interest in science,” said Beth Kurz, Principal Hydrogeologist and Laboratory Group Lead. “She would always tell me that I could do anything that I wanted in life if I worked hard enough. She demonstrated that by going back to college at the same time as me to get a degree in geography.”

Leroux said, “My mom always had a love of learning and encouraged us. She read a lot and passed that interest on to me.”

Added Douglas, “I always wanted to know how things worked. Science gave me an avenue to figure that out. I got into geosciences because of my mom. She herself wanted to be a geologist, but was told by a professor that geology wasn’t for women. She never pursued it, but growing up she always took me out hiking so I got exposed to her love for that type of science, and it influenced my interest area.”

“My interest in wildlife started very young, around age four,” said Crossland. “I grew up in a small town in northern Saskatchewan, where bears would go through our trash regularly. I never saw it as a nuisance or danger—I wanted to help feed them.”

“My mom was told she wasn’t good at math, so she quit trying,” said Loreal Heebink, Senior Project Management Specialist. “When she had kids of her own, she pushed us to apply ourselves in whatever field we wanted.”

 

Influencing Factors


While parents definitely influenced their pursuit of STEM fields, some of the EERC female scientists and engineers had encouragement or exposure through programs in which they participated, like Girl Scouts, science fairs, or advanced placement classes.

Crossland’s mother was a Girl Scout leader who brought in speakers and took her troop on outdoor adventures that exposed them to camping, hiking, and science projects. Heebink participated in Math Counts and the science fair every year, and probably would have participated in additional programs had they been available to her in her small community.

“I loved math. One of my math teachers was also the coach of the math club. He knew I was good at math and encouraged me to join. I wasn’t able to fully participate because of issues of logistics and rides to and from practice, but he always let me join in the meets,” said Leroux. “Looking back, knowing that I was sought out to be a valuable part of the math club is impactful still today.”

Kurz took advanced level honors classes in math and science, but kept it quiet.

“I kind of hung out with some rebellious kids, so it definitely wasn’t cool to be smart. I’m proof that you can do both—have fun AND get good grades.”

As one of the younger members of the EERC staff, Douglas noted that she is from the generation that grew up with science clubs and math meets being the norm. She even attended an engineering summer camp for girls.

“I also had the influence of my older sister. She participated in all those things, and of course, I tried to be just like her,” said Douglas.

Teachers also get credit for influencing decisions on careers and college majors in STEM fields, despite messages that they weren’t good choices for girls.

“My third grade teacher really introduced us to science,” said Heebink. “She had eggs that hatched in our room, and had us do experiments to teach us about scientific methods and processes. It provided the structure I needed to guide me through science.”

“My daughter was told in third grade that she couldn’t do math. She fought that stigma her whole life, despite my assurances that the teacher was wrong,” said Hoffarth. “During her senior year, she was told the opposite. What a difference a good and encouraging teacher can make!”

 All of these experiences, both positive and negative, led these women to their fields. In the face of obstacles and the lack of examples of women in STEM while they were growing up, they are now thriving in their careers at the EERC. All of them are now shining examples of successful women in STEM careers for girls today.

This article is the first in a series about women in STEM at the EERC. 

Article written by Nikki Massmann. Photos by Kari Suedel