In the United States, men outnumber women in many science and engineering fields by nearly 3 to 1. In fields like physics or the geosciences, the gender gap can be even wider.
Emily Fischer, professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, is the lead investigator on a $1.7 million National Science Foundation grant to close that gap in the geosciences, which encompass mining and geology, atmospheric sciences, issues related to natural resource management, natural disaster forecasting, and oceanography.
Developing a program
Fischer and her team intend to bolster the number of female undergraduate students earning degrees in the geosciences or going on to graduate school in these fields. They are developing a program to be piloted on the Colorado Front Range and in the Carolinas.
Team members include: Silvia Sara Canetto, CSU psychology professor; Paul R. Hernandez, professor of educational psychology at West Virginia University; Laura Sample McMeeking, associate director of CSU’s STEM Center; Rebecca Barnes, professor of environmental sciences at Colorado College; Sandra Clinton, professor of geography and earth sciences at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and Manda Adams, a professor associated with the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who is currently on an appointment at NSF (working with the geoscience project team as part of her independent research and development program).
“We want to build the pipeline of female students entering the geosciences,” Fischer said. “Females are underrepresented in the geosciences – at about 16 percent of the workforce. That is the picture in my field too – women represent about 15 percent of atmospheric scientists. It’s even lower when you get into geology.”
2015 and beyond
Starting in 2015, the team will recruit 50 first-year female students from CSU, the University of Colorado-Boulder, and the University of Wyoming to attend a workshop where they will learn about educational and career opportunities and meet peers with similar interests.
The team will simultaneously recruit a cohort of students from the University of North Carolina Charlotte, Duke University, and the University of South Carolina.
From there, the students will be mentored in person by local members of the Earth Science Women’s Network, a nonprofit organization. In addition, female students will have access to a web platform that will enable national-scale peer mentoring.
“We are patterning this intervention after outreach programs that we know have been successful with advanced undergraduate and graduate-level women,” Fischer said. “We want to see if this can work with female undergraduate students and get more of them interested in pursuing careers in the geosciences.”
Canetto, Hernandez, and Sample McMeeking also will evaluate the program’s effectiveness.
The goal is to design an effective, inexpensive recruitment and retention program that can be a model for other universities.
“There is evidence that mentoring seems to be an effective tool for women in various disciplines, but there is no scientific data for women in the geosciences,” Fischer said. “We want to collect real data from these students. We want to understand whether mentoring works for undergraduate women in the geosciences and exactly how beneficial these efforts could be.”