February 10, 2014

EDITORIAL: Expanding STEM Fields to Women

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With the construction of the Cornell Tech campus having officially started on Roosevelt Island last month, the question of what students will fill its classrooms still remains. As the nation pushes for an increase in women who are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, Cornell Tech has realized that it must be part of the solution to encourage women to join those fields. Cornell Tech has already begun to make progress in its support for STEM programs targeted at young girls, but we encourage the program to expand its to include women in higher education.

According to a 2011 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, if the United States is to maintain its place in international STEM rankings, we must produce approximately one million more workers in those fields over the next decade. Currently, according to the report, more than 70 percent of girls in junior high school express an interest in STEM education — yet only 0.3 percent of women in the U.S. choose to major in computer science when they reach college. Cornell is affected by this shortage of women as well: The fact that all seven of the students in Cornell Tech’s first graduating class were male is just one indicator of the persistence of this gap. In an interview last spring, Cornell Tech Dean Dan Huttenlocher acknowledged the problem, noting the applicant pool was “overwhelmingly male.” We encourage Cornell to take the necessary steps to remain one of the nation’s top supporters of women in STEM fields.

Cornell Tech has demonstrated a commitment to helping young women in middle and high school gain more knowledge about their options in STEM fields. The campus has sponsored a summer program in conjunction with Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in the technology and engineering sectors. The investment in programs for girls at an earlier stage in their education is important; it will be today’s young students who will fill the campus when it fully opens in 2037.

When it comes to women currently in higher education, however, Cornell Tech officials have admitted that there is work to be done. Perhaps to start, there are programs other Ivy League undergraduate institutions have implemented that could serve as an model to foster ties between Cornell Tech and the University’s undergraduates in Ithaca. In 2001, Yale University developed broader introductory science courses for nonmajors, provided freshmen with increased opportunities for scientific research and reviewed the laboratory sections attached to introductory courses — all with the goal of making STEM studies more accessible to students who, according to the university, “frequently abandon science … as a result of a single bad experience early on.” We encourage Cornell Tech to collaborate with the Ithaca campus to establish programs that are geared towards students, especially women, to join STEM fields even if they have had little exposure to the discipline prior to college.

Making a substantial change to the gender gap in STEM fields will be a long-term process that must start with young girls early on. However, there is still untapped potential in today’s collegiate women that should not be overlooked. If Cornell Tech wants to ensure that more women will apply to and enroll in its programs in the immediate future, the school should provide support and encouragement to current women in college who could thrive in a STEM field.