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Evolving STEM Perceptions Are Key to Success

I grew up in an environment where failure was not an option. Education was extremely important to my family, so going to college was the natural thing to do. Fortunately, I was a multidimensional student, doing equally well in all subjects. My goal was to be as good as I could be in everything at school, since a better grade meant a better chance at a better school. That brought with it a wide spectrum of options for me.

Peggy Agouris, dean, College of Science. Photo by Evan Cantwell [1]

Peggy Agouris, dean, College of Science. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Initially, I wanted to be a lawyer, like many in my family, as I enjoyed public speaking and debating. I also thought about being a writer or an architect. I finally decided to go into engineering, one of the most competitive options, because it combined several of the scientific subjects I liked and offered a wide array of applications.

In my native Greece, it wasn’t unusual for a girl to go into science or engineering. It was mainly an issue of whether you could get there academically or not. As a result, there were—and still are—a lot of women in these fields, not only as students but as faculty and academic leaders.

Since I’ve worked in three different countries on two continents, I have seen noticeable differences in how science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are populated in terms of gender.

In the United States, we lose a lot of girls from STEM fields during high school or earlier. Why? For starters, we make it too easy to quit. Undeniably, STEM subjects contain challenging concepts, but so do non-STEM fields, like English. I should know—I’m not a native speaker. Non-STEM fields can be difficult, but we are willing to make more effort for them because we consider those subjects critical to develop the knowledge we are expected to have. On the contrary, we have made it acceptable (particularly for girls)—as a culture—to give up on STEM subjects because they are viewed as “hard.” The result is that some of our best people lose the option to pursue a career in STEM because we let them quit early in their education.

Stereotypes play a role too, and unfortunately society doesn’t help. Scientists are, more often than not, viewed as nerds. You see it every day, even on television. Think of the Big Bang Theory, for instance—a funny show, but one in which all scientists are nerds and the good-looking people are not scientists. It has become hard for impressionable adolescents (especially girls), already struggling to define their personality and overcome age-related (and media-amplified) insecurities about their appearance, to identify with this stereotypical depiction of scientists in popular culture. Nobody wants to be the socially awkward person in the corner. I know I don’t, and I’ve been a scientist for most of my life.

So there is a combination of factors to work on, like creating and promoting the right role models, supporting STEM learning in K-12 with persistence and enthusiasm, and creating an environment where everyone can thrive regardless of gender or race.

The College of Science is doing very well with the balance between men and women in our student body. In fact, we are doing much better than other colleges of similar orientation, composition, and size, with 56 percent of our students being female. We are also one of very few STEM-oriented colleges worldwide led by a woman. But we need to do more.

We started the FOCUS Camp—Females of Color and those Underrepresented in STEM—because we want to do everything we can to keep young people from opting out of STEM fields. We want to help them keep their studies and career options wide open.

Most important, we want to expose them to the wonderful world of scientific discovery—to demystify STEM fields and unfold their beauty. We want to highlight the connection between the problems we solve in our labs and the problems people face every day. We want to bring in groups of students who don’t traditionally get exposure in those areas.

Increasing participation in STEM fields is critical to our success as a society and cannot happen without the inclusion of women and other underrepresented groups. Mason and the College of Science are fully committed to supporting this goal.

Peggy Agouris is the dean of Mason’s College of Science. She received her Dipl. Eng. from the National Technical University of Athens, Greece, and her MS and PhD from The Ohio State University. Prior to joining George Mason University in 2007, she worked at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the University of Maine.