STEM Conference: Keynote speaker tackles issues regarding science, stereotypes

SHERIDAN — The second annual Roadmap to STEM conference brought an influx of scientists and teachers to Sheridan this week. Hosted by the Wyoming Department of Education and Sheridan College, today marks the last day of the event.

Keynote speaker Dr. Deborah Berebichez addressed issues regarding science, education and stereotypes Tuesday morning.

Originally from Mexico, Berebichez graduated with her doctorate in physics from Stanford University. Currently she works on Wall Street as a risk analyst, but focuses much of her attention on explaining complex science concepts to youth and adults through columns, classes and videos.

Berebichez addressed Wyoming educators on the importance of creating an open learning environment. By doing this, she said, more minorities and women will have the confidence to enter fields like math, science and engineering.

Nationally, women and girls are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. According to 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce data, women make up 24 percent of the STEM workforce, but earn on average 33 percent more when working in these fields.

Focusing on why this occurs, Berebichez relayed her own stories. During her time in graduate school, a Stanford professor advised her to change studies to a more feminine field. This was a message she received throughout her life from teachers and peers.

These messages are damaging to girls, she said.

“Girls’ achievements and interests in math and science are shaped by the environment around them,” Berebichez said.

While national statistics show that girls are taking more math and sciences classes on average than boys, they don’t always perform as well on tests.

This underperformance, Berebichez said, is often due to a lack of confidence.

Berebichez cited a study in which 100 students were broken into two groups of 50. Group A is told that boys and girls generally perform as well as each other. Group B is told that girls do not perform as well as boys on the test. When the results of the tests came in, Groups A and B reflect what was told to them, with girls’ scores dropping drastically in Group B.

A highly studied topic in social psychology, stereotype threat is a situation in which people feel to be at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group. In this case, women and girls feel added pressure to disprove that their gender group underperforms in STEM.

Achievement is not always based on intelligence, Berebichez said, but on the belief that success is attainable.

She quoted Dr. Shelley Correll, “Boys do not pursue mathematical activities at a higher rate than girls do because they are better at math. They do so, at least partially, because they think they are better.”

To improve the environment surrounding STEM for girls and to combat the stereotype that science is “boring,” Berebichez works with organizations like Technovation Challenge.

Groups of girls work to develop an app startup to solve a real problem in their community. Teams are set up with local coaches — teachers, parents, community members — as well as a professional mentor as they compete for $20,000 in awards.

Students have the to opportunity to partner with tech giants like Google, Verizon Wireless and Adobe.

One of the 2015 finalists created an app called Ameka, which presents cognitive tests to the user. These quizzes measure balance, focus and reaction time to assess whether it is safe for the individual to drive. The high school students behind Ameka created this to cut down on drunk driving in their community.

While Wyoming doesn’t currently participate in Technovation Challenge, Berebichez said she hopes to see that change in the future.

Finishing up her lecture, Berebichez outlined ways Sheridan schools can continue to encourage girls and minorities to participate in STEM: involve parents, offer STEM-based after-school programs, teach critical thinking, bring role models to class and make coding mandatory.

In Sheridan County District 1, Tongue River Middle School and Big Horn High School currently use the program Globaloria to teach coding and STEM-based concepts to students.

According to another 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce study, as the fastest growing field in the job market, STEM workers are earning an average of 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts. Job growth isn’t predicted to slow down with STEM occupations accounting for a total of 8.6 million jobs in the workforce by 2018.   

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Copyright © 2015 The Sheridan Press or Sheridan Newspapers, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 The Sheridan Press or Sheridan Newspapers, Inc..