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September 26, 2017

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STEM gender gap spurs push to support research

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Yasmina Chavez

Instructor Carter Chiu, left, talks with middle school student Tiffany Zhan, center, and high schooler Jessica Li, right, about their UNO coding project during UNITE, a teacher-student STEM/Big Data 6-week camp, at UNLV, Tuesday, July 11, 2017. Clark County School District teamed up with UNLV to provide a crash course in Big Data programming for middle school, high school students and teachers to help the advancement of STEM education.

A gender gap persists in science, technology, engineering and math, a problem that researchers say could begin to be understood and then solved through research.

U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., has introduced two pieces of legislation to address the issue. The Building Blocks of STEM and Code Like a Girl acts both seek to fund research into early childhood STEM education.

As a former computer programmer, Rosen said she saw firsthand the gender gap in her field.

“Despite the progress we’ve made, fewer than one in five computer science graduates are women,” she said. “This disparity is depriving our country of talented minds that could be working on our most challenging problems.”

UNLV College of Engineering Dean Rama Venkat says it’s important to put money into this kind of research rather than funding new programs without understanding why young girls are less likely to pursue STEM education and careers. He said enrollment would be expected to mirror the population, at 51 percent female, but usually no more than 20 percent of engineering students are women.

“One needs to really understand why the pipeline for women students in engineering and computer sciences is not there,” he said. “To understand that you’ve got to find the root cause, and I think the root cause is in the elementary school and middle school, where we lose many of these students for a variety of reasons.”

Cultural factors, biases from teachers and in the curriculum, as well as parental issues could all be factors, Venkat says.

“It could be a lot of different things,” he said. “These are all just hypotheses because I don’t know the truth. The best thing would be to do research … If we understand the reason, then we may be able to find the solution.”

The legislation focused on girls under the age of 10 would also fund computer science programs.

“UNLV conducts about a dozen programs and camps annually focused on STEM for K-12 students and teachers in Clark County and the state,” UNLV spokesman Francis McCabe said. “These programs benefit hundreds of students.”

In July, one of these programs brought a group of Clark County School District teachers to work with students in an Army Education Outreach Program, focused on increasing STEM participation in early grades.

UNLV also hosted a cohort of Nevada high school students for two weeks to study engineering and transportation in the Nevada Summer Transportation Institute.

“The Nevada Summer Transportation Summer Institute ― funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Nevada Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration ― is aimed at encouraging Silver State high schoolers to pursue STEM and produce the next generation of transportation safety advocates,” McCabe said.

H.R. 3397, the “Building Blocks of STEM Act,” would direct the National Science Foundation to spread Discovery Research PreK-12 program funding to more equally cover studies that emphasize education for children under the age of 11. The bill was sent to the House Science, Space, and Technology committee on July 25, and has not come up for a hearing.

U.S. Rep. Stephen Knight, R-Calif., is the only Republican to sign onto the legislation as a co-sponsor. He sits on the House committee that would consider the measure. The committee is chaired by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas.

H.R. 3316, the “Code Like a Girl Act,” would establish two National Science Foundation grants targeting research and computer science programs for girls under 10 years old.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York, is co-sponsoring the measure along with a slew of other Democrats and one other Republican, U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va. Comstock chairs the Research and Technology Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology committee, where the bill was referred.

The bill was also referred to the House Education and the Workforce committee, where “Code Like a Girl Act” co-sponsor Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-NY, is a member.

“Although there isn’t a markup currently scheduled, Rep. Rosen is working closely with her Republican co-sponsors to bring up both bills in committee,” Rosen spokeswoman Ivana Brancaccio said.

Rosen spoke on the House floor July 20 to emphasize the need to encourage girls to study computer science.

“Funding programs that encourage girls to take up computer science is one of the most important steps we can take to break down barriers and level the playing field for women everywhere,” she said.