More than 7,500 high school girls gathered to tinker with robotics this March, as part of the 15th annual Devry University HerWorld program. HerWorld aims to create college- and career-ready young women by encouraging them to explore the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
Devry hosted 30 HerWorld events across the country last month, which included STEM workshops and speeches from female leaders in science and technology fields, as well as Olympic athletes. Soccer legend Mia Hamm spoke at gatherings in New York and Florida to assure young women that they can succeed in a male-dominated field—be it STEM or professional sports.
But it's Hamm—who joined the U.S. women's national team at 15, claimed two World Cup titles, and won two Olympic gold medals—who calls the high school girls at the HerWorld events "inspiring."
"I didn't think it would have as much of an emotional impact on me as it did," she says of engaging with the young women at the New York event. "You see a group of women wanting to be there, wanting to learn, and understanding the importance of furthering their education—not only in regards to their future, but the future of their families, for the future of their communities, and hopefully for the future our country."
In the United States, there's a call for developing more STEM experts to keep the country globally competitive and to solve environmental issues. The field is ripe for women: According to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce report, women with STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs. But the same report shows that women hold less than 25 percent of all STEM positions.
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Some studies show that young women aren't pursuing STEM fields because they lack the confidence to do so and feel tied to the gender stereotypes of males having more technical skills.
"I remember taking a [high school] chemistry class and felt more like the guys were being taught than the girls," Hamm says. "It's 2012—we should be talking about inclusion, not exclusion. And even if the numbers are lower with girls' participation [in STEM] in the classroom, if that's what their passion is, and if that's what they want to focus on, then we should be encouraging these girls to do that."
Encouragement from parents and teachers typically has the biggest effect on students and their ambitions, Hamm says. The best teachers Hamm had were the ones who challenged her and created a positive learning environment in the classroom, she says.
"I remember the teachers that did that—once you got in that classroom, there were no cliques," Hamm notes. "I just remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh, we are learning so much from each other.'"
Parents play a key role in supporting their children, especially if it's an unpopular field for the students' genders, such as young women who are pursuing STEM fields or competitive sports. Hamm's parents were supportive of her when she was one of the only female soccer players at her high school, and Hamm plans to do the same for her 5-year-old twin daughters.
"I want my girls to feel that they can be a part of whatever they want," she says.
[Read how students learn better with engaged parents.]
An important way for parents to provide support for their kids' activities is to show them that there are other people out there with similar interests. The HerWorld events, for example, allowed young women to meet peers who are also interested in STEM.
"It's largely important to have a good support system," Hamm notes. "Especially on those tough days or when [the kids] are doubting themselves, to be able to turn to them and say, 'Listen, you deserve this. This is what you love to do. Believe in yourself and continue to push forward.'"
Mia Hamm (middle) encourages young women to explore STEM at a New York HerWorld event.