For 15 years, Erie program has encouraged girls to explore science

Women with careers in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (collectively referred to as the STEM fields) have greater job security and higher incomes than women in other occupations -- 33 percent higher, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Administration. Yet women hold only a quarter of these lucrative jobs.

Often the hindrance to a STEM career isn’t lack of interest, but a shortage of high school credits. Girls who take only the minimum required high school courses in science and math won’t have the foundation education needed to enter many of the STEM majors they’ll discover when they arrive on a college campus as freshmen.

For 15 years, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, has been encouraging early exploration of the STEM fields through its Math Options Career Day. During the annual daylong event, 250 seventh- and eighth-grade girls from 40 schools in rural northwestern Pennsylvania are invited to the college to build motors, design bridges and conduct experiments in hands-on workshops taught by faculty members and STEM professionals from the Erie area.

The goal of the event is to very literally help girls to keep their options open. “It’s important that we reach young women in the middle school years, because it’s a critical time in their development and career decision-making,” said Peggy McCarthy, director of Continuing Education at the college. “If they fail to take math and science courses early on, they’ll be locked out of STEM majors in college. That’s why programs like ours are so important.”

Michelle Brendel Zowacki, a 2002 Penn State Erie alumna and a project plastics engineer at Pittsburgh-based medical-supply manufacturer Medrad, attended Math Options Career Day in 1993 as a seventh grader. “Math Options taught me to enroll in classes in middle and high school that would fully prepare me for a major, and ultimately, a career in a STEM field,” she said.

It was prescient advice; when Zowacki returned to Penn State Behrend in 1997 for an admissions tour, she said that she gravitated to the plastics engineering technology program, one of only four offered in the United States.

"After seeing the technology labs, meeting the professors and talking with the students in the program, I knew that was the major I wanted to pursue,” she said in her keynote address at the 2011 Math Options Career Day. Zowacki used her story to encourage the girls in attendance to take the math and science electives they’d need to potentially pursue a STEM major in college, telling them that “not only are these types of professions in high demand, but they also are careers that are challenging, rewarding and very well compensated.”

Fifteen years in, Math Options’ message also has made an impact at the college: Female enrollment in the School of Engineering at Penn State Behrend has increased 68 percent from 2005 to 2011, and the college is the recipient of two National Science Foundation grants totaling $1.1 million that give scholarship support to women and other students from underrepresented groups who are pursuing a degree in the STEM fields.

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Last Updated December 20, 2011