When a mechanical engineer-turned-teacher took a good hard look at the percentage of women in STEM since she had graduated college, she knew she had to do something.
SWE educator member Mariel Kolker spent 13 years working as a mechanical engineer in the very male-dominated power generation, transmission & distribution industry – rarely exposed to other women working in the same departments as she. In 2000, she transitioned into a new career and became a physics teacher. When she began teaching Principles of Engineering in 2011, she was astounded at how few girls were signing up to take it. This prompted her to do some digging and research the number of women in STEM. She found that the numbers had barely budged since she had started her career.
“I was frustrated by the low numbers of girls willing to take the course, and so I advocated for and taught our first all-girls class,” Mariel said. “I spread the word throughout the other science classes and recruited the support of guidance counselors. But once I started working with the girls, I wanted to dig deeper. I started researching national trends, and that’s when I began to speak publicly about this issue.”
“There’s an implicit gender bias that exists in our society which makes mathematics not-so-socially acceptable for girls. It starts in elementary school… girls self-identify as being bad in math while testing at or above the levels boys test at, and the messages girls get aren’t helping. The whole definition of what it means to be feminine and to grow up doing ‘female-appropriate’ things simply keeps getting narrower. The result is that by the time girls graduate from high school, most of them have already chosen career paths outside the quantitative fields of engineering and computer science.”
Mariel started speaking at national educator conferences in 2015, giving her Girls and STEM talk every chance she could. She spoke with science teachers, math & technology teachers and administrators at elementary through high school. But she realized that for things to change in the classroom, she needed to think bigger. She contacted Project Lead The Way (PLTW), the largest national provider of engineering curricula to high schools, middle schools and elementary schools. PLTW has trained thousands of teachers who are reaching over a hundred thousand students each year. This was where the change needed to start, she decided.
“Project Lead The Way really gets it right,” said Mariel. “They’ve developed academically challenging curricula that is student-centered and project-driven. They are teaching engineering the right way. In addition, their professional development is extremely strong; they do a first class job at preparing and supporting teachers. It’s an honor to work with them.”
Mariel successfully negotiated a contract with PLTW to help develop a professional development workshop for their Master Teachers at the PLTW Summit conference in March 2016. Master Teachers are those who train future PLTW teachers, and therefore are the most influential among PLTW’s trained teacher network.
“These are the influencers who are going to reach teachers that don’t fully understand the problem – as well as those who do, but don’t know what to do about it,” she explained.
Mariel’s curriculum was presented for the first time at the PLTW Summit this past month in Indianapolis, and the reaction was dramatic.
“Teachers were so passionate about this topic; we had some really interesting conversations. It is clear that we’ve just begun to address this as a community, and that more work is needed.”
When asked why she is focusing her efforts on teachers, Mariel added, “Teachers are perceived experts, and kids value teachers’ opinions and influence tremendously. They put more weight into what a teacher says than anyone else, other than their parents. The messages that teachers provide young girls is critical in girls determining what they are capable of. Impacting kids at the K-12 level is vital. Empowering teachers to put a stop to biased messages is the best way to make an impact short of changing our entire culture.”
PLTW named Mariel a Master Teacher based on her national work in implicit bias and gender equality. She continues to work with PLTW to make an impact on other Master Teachers across the globe, and to move the needle on closing the gender gap in engineering.
“The goal is to figure out what works, and then share it out to the entire K-12 community,” Mariel said. “There’s more awareness out there and more support than ever before. People are talking about gender equity and people are listening. It’s a long road, but I’m hopeful.”
For more information about Mariel, visit marielkolker.wordpress.com.
Educators are an important part of the STEM pipeline. SWE offers full-time K-12 educators an exclusive, low-cost membership that provides valuable K-12 outreach tools to support educators interested in encouraging more women to become engineers. Cost of membership is only $20, and educator members can also take advantage of reduced fees at SWE’s Annual Conference. K-12 Outreach resources for SWE members!