While women make up close to half of the American workforce, they are still underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — commonly known as STEM. The numbers are sobering: as of 2011 women made up less than a quarter of the STEM workforce. And according to findings by a New York-based think tank, the women who are working in STEM are 45 percent more likely than their male counterparts to exit the industry within the year.
Patty Fagin finds this imbalance deeply troubling. She is the head of the Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, a K-12 all-girls school in Princeton, and wants to tackle the problem head-on from the ground up.
“So many of the jobs in the future are going to be in the STEM field, and it’s the one area where women are still seriously underrepresented. And I think that should worry us all,” Fagin says.
“We should really be devoting our time and energy into figuring out how we can keep girls in the STEM pipeline because we need girls to feel confident and competent, or we’re not going to see them going into those fields, and that would edge them out of the economics of the situation when they get further along.”
Fagin, who has more than 35 years of experience working in education, will share her insights on the importance of STEM education for girls and how to encourage them to enter the field at a Princeton Chamber event on Wednesday, January 20, at the Nassau Club of Princeton. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org.
Fagin is originally from St. Louis, Missouri. From a young age, she has had a love for education bred into her. Her father, who worked in sales, was a first generation college student, and her mother was a homemaker.
“We were told that education was the ticket to good life, to making a difference in the world, to leaving the world a better place than we found it,” Fagin says. “And so I had that mantra at the back of my head that education is a difference maker.”
While in elementary school, she started tutoring students in math and reading, and continued this throughout her high school years. “I enjoyed it greatly and thought, this is something I enjoy, this is something I am good at,” Fagin says.
She went to an all-girls high school and did her undergraduate studies at Fontbonne College, which had just gone co-educational before she enrolled (“There were literally maybe five boys in the whole school,” she recalls, but says it was “a great, empowering experience”). She then got a master’s degree in media communications from Webster University, also in St. Louis. Her passion for learning eventually led her into the field of education, and she pursued a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
“I’ve always been interested in instruction and curriculum because obviously that’s what drives success in our students — having an understanding of what works when we teach students, and to stay current with the research about what that looks like over time,” Fagin says. And she is drawing on that understanding now to figure out how best to teach STEM subjects and to foster a love for the field in students from a young age.
“A lot of what we’ve learned about what works for girls in STEM is to make it hands-on, highly engaging, and very non-threatening, because girls can develop a thick mindset around their ability for science and math and technology, and we want them to stay open about how fun it can be, how interesting it can be, and that it can be for them,” Fagin says.
“What we’ve found in our research about how girls best learn STEM is that while boys will tolerate abstract science at a higher level and that they are very much into competition, that’s not the best way for girls to learn. They really learn best when they have the opportunity to collaborate, to solve a problem, to feel like they’re doing something humanitarian, making the world a better place by the project that they are working on,” Fagin adds.
When the Sacred Heart education was founded more than 200 years ago, Fagin explains, the driving motivation was to figure out “the best way to help women be leaders.”
“So my role in leading a Sacred Heart school in this day and age is to ask the question, what do girls need in this time to be leaders? And I think if we look at the data, girls are doing really well in terms of college placement and excelling in many fields,” but not so much in STEM fields, Fagin says.
She is trying to remedy this by starting STEM education for her students “at the earliest of ages,” from pre-school and kindergarten. Since launching a 1:1 iPad program in 2010, every student in grades 5 to 12 now bring an iPad to school whiles students in lower school have access to iPads in classrooms.
The school has also invested in “tinker stations” throughout campus which, Fagin explains, offer “low risk, high fun activities that engage girls in science and math, that give them the confidence to play with math, and not just see it as an abstract subject.”
And in the last two years, the school has also established a MakerSpace, a cross-curricular design area dedicated to activities like 3D printing, laser cutting, and digital sewing.
“They love it,” Fagin says of the students’ response to the MakerSpace. “Even on their breaks they ask to come in.”
One of the most important things, Fagin says, is to develop curriculums that provide opportunities for success and safe environments for learning, in which students can develop a mindset that they can excel in STEM.
“As we look to the future, and we know how much the future depends upon not just competency but expertise in science, technology, math, and engineering, and we do a disservice to girls if we don’t prepare them to go into those fields,” Fagin says.