Ada Lovelace was a 19th century mathematician who’s considered to be the very first computer programer. Chemist Rosalind Franklin was instrumental in the discovery of DNA. In addition to being a Hollywood star, actress Hedy Lamarr was an inventor who pioneered Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth technologies. Mathematician Katherine Johnson’s contributions to NASA played a critical role in the success of the first U.S. spaceflight. And the list goes on and on.
It’s no mystery that brilliant women have been making their mark on the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics for centuries. And in the spirit of International Women’s Month, we want to shine a light on a few of those who continue to do remarkable work that not only contributes to the world of Canadian STEM, but who inspire young girls to break through the stigma and eventually also take to the STEM stage.
We can’t help but kick this off with one of our own, the woman without which this post would have never been written. Kate Arthur, the founder and CEO of Kids Code Jeunesse. Arthur recognized the need for kids to be well-equipped with the skills they’ll need to navigate the workforce once they get older. Driven by the importance of digital literacy in our day and age, Arthur founded KCJ with the goal of empowering both students and teachers with code.
Arthur has been and continues to be an avid promoter of STEM education, and encouraging young girls to enter these historically male-dominated fields is one of the key messages she wants all to hear.
"I believe that education and diversity are at the core of a nation’s strength," says Arthur. " By bringing STEM education into public primary schools across Canada, we inspire all children to innovate with technology, and by doing so, diversify the future workforce."
Encouraging diversity in STEM fields is what also fuels the work of Dr. Eugenia Duodu. As a chemist and a community developer, she was once delivering a workshop in Scarborough, Ont. when one girl asked Duodu who she was, she recounts in a TEDx Talk. After confidently and correctly calling herself a scientist, all she got back was skepticism and even disbelief because, apparently, "she didn’t look like a scientist." It was at that point that Duodu realized that was the reason she gave the workshop in the first place: to show youth that science is accessible to all.
That motto translates into the work she does as the CEO of Visions of Science, a charitable organization that promotes STEM education for youth in low-income families and marginalized communities. "We are hoping to solve local and global challenges that affect us all to a varying degree," says Duodu. "We need to ensure that everyone has equitable opportunity to have a seat at the decision making table. When youth are empowered to succeed, there is no stopping what they can do!"
Dr. Rim Khazall agrees. "I strongly believe that STEM, much like every field of study, is strengthened only by its diversity and inclusion of minority voices," she says.
Khazall is a neuroscientist whose research focuses on the gut hormone called ghrelin and how it relates to stress, with the goal of studying how stress particularly affects women. But much like Duodu, her work is not confined to the lab. A mentor and youth worker, Khazall can often be found in local health centres running fitness programs and leadership camps, or engaging girls in STEM fields through the activities at CU-WISE (Carleton University Women in Science and Engineering).
"Training girls in STEM will provide them with an opportunity to cultivate the skill set that is required to become catalysts of change as women in STEM," she says. "Girls are problem solvers, big thinkers and are detailed oriented, all of these characteristics are imperative in every field of STEM."
Khazall adds that the worlds of science and tech are in "dire need of diverse voices, thoughts and ideas." So here are a couple of ideas on how educators can get the girls in their classrooms to fall in love with science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
First off, keep your eyes peeled for the girls who show a keen interest in these fields. When you spot them, give them the attention and mentorship they need to instill the kind of confidence that’ll propel them to pursue STEM in the future. Textbooks only go so far - it’s that human touch (and sometimes a little push) that does the trick.
Once you’ve talked the talk, it’s then the time to walk the walk. Motivational speeches and guidance are great, but first-hand experience should be added into the mix as well. Girls need to experiment, play, build and discover STEM to equip them with the skills they will need down the road. (Not to toot our own horn, but our workshops can help you with that.)
Finally, these girls need to connect with like-minded people to see that they’re not alone — a key ingredient, given that the gender gap is still very much an unfortunate reality in STEM-related fields in Canada. So by taking young girls to women’s organizations that focus on tech and science, you can give them a hopeful and inspirational glimpse of what their future could look like.
Whatever you do, continue to encourage girls in STEM. As Dr. Khazall says, "build the foundation of that future now."