The Long Road to My STEM Career
I took the long way around in my career path. Literally. I was born in Hong Kong, about 7,500 miles from Iowa City. Growing up, I didn’t have much encouragement to follow a STEM career path. My first assignment in junior high trigonometry class was to memorize a three-by-three grid of the relationships among the three sides of a right triangle and the value of each sine, cosine and tangent function. At 12 years old, I didn’t see how the assignment was relevant. This learning activity was the opposite of fun; it wasn’t accessible, and it penalized risk-taking. I still remember how helpless I felt because I couldn’t commit that little table to memory. I didn’t do well in that class. I failed miserably with a low F! Eventually, I recovered, and in high school I applied to join an exchange program to the U.S.
I landed in Alabama. Culturally, physically, psychologically, I could not have been further from home. But I stayed in Alabama to get my undergrad and graduate degrees in psychology. Then I went directly into a Ph.D. program in Texas in Quantitative Psychology. I’ve been working in psychometrics for ten years but, to this day, trig is still not my favorite subject. I can do it, but I don’t like it. Thinking back to that class, was there a different, more engaging way, to teach the subject? Probably. Would it have made a difference for me? Yeah, I think so.
In a Microsoft® study about STEM from 2018, 91% of fifth- to twelfth-grade girls said they are creative. But only 37% of them think STEM jobs involve creativity. What the data are telling us is that girls don’t think STEM is cool. They don’t think STEM is for them.
It’s time we change how we teach STEM. We need to make STEM learning fun and relevant by inviting students to explore, to play and to take risks. We can do that by creating learning modules that contain accessible learning activities. Learning and fun can go together.
We often hear about the problem of girls in STEM classes: they self-select out of the field early; they don’t perform as well as boys; boys are better at math. You’ve heard all the tropes and false narratives before. These are myths that we need to dispel completely. I have extensive experience in the assessment industry, so believe me when I say that girls and boys perform equally well in math and science standardized tests. If anything, girls are doing better than boys in the early grades. So, if boys and girls are equally capable, why do fewer women enter the STEM fields? How do we keep their interest and extend it into a career in STEM?
In the same Microsoft® study, when asked to describe a typical person in a STEM career, 30% of girls said they envision a man in these roles. These girls are telling us that they don’t think they belong, and STEM isn’t for them.
We can turn girls’ STEM interest into success at school and in a fulfilling career. An important first step is to introduce girls and young women to positive role models in these fields. It’s not news that women are underrepresented in the STEM workforce. Collectively, we can change this narrative. We can tell girls, “Yes, STEM is for you, and you belong here.” I’m asking not only women in STEM but men, too. They can help close the gap just as much as women. In fact, I would argue that since men tend to dominate these fields, they need to step up and show their support for STEM equality.
In 2015, women filled 47% of all jobs in the U.S. but only 24% of the STEM jobs, as reported by the U.S. Department of Commerce. This gap is excluding women from some well-paying jobs. The low number of female STEM workers is not only a workforce issue, but it is also an issue of economic and female empowerment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage of all STEM jobs in the U.S. is $87,500. This is almost twice as high as the average wage of non-STEM jobs at $45,700.
I believe that if you don’t see someone that you can relate to, doing something you aspire to do, you will think it’s impossible. We need to highlight women in STEM — from the CEO to the researcher, from the astronaut to the engineer. The key is to be inspirational and relatable. When we think about role models, we often focus on the inspirational part. We forget about being relatable.
Finally, we need to be more cognizant about sharing our successes and our failures. Failures are steps that we take on the way to success. We need to build a culture that celebrates learning from failures, along with courage and perseverance. Junior high math didn’t exactly ignite my interest in a STEM career. But since then, I’ve adjusted to many project setbacks. That early failure didn’t define me. It ultimately gave me strength and taught me perseverance.
A quote from the CEO of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani, applies here. She said, “When we teach girls to be imperfect, and we help them leverage it … we will build a movement of young women who are brave and who will build a better world for themselves and for each and every one of us.” Share the story of your STEM journey — the whole story — with the girls in your life. Encourage them to try, and celebrate with them as they learn. Point out the successes of everyone, men and women.
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About the author: Ada Woo, Ph.D., Senior Director of Strategy Implementation & Operations for ACTNext™, serves as chief of staff for the R&D and innovation unit. She is responsible for the achievement of strategic initiatives and programs for ACTNext™, as well as managing the unit’s day-to-day operations. Woo works closely with ACT®’s strategic partners from the Iowa edtech community, as well as local and state government, to leverage ACT®’s core capabilities in learning, measurement and navigation.
In 2018, Woo was appointed to the Iowa Innovation Council, an advisory group charged with developing strategies to encourage and support innovation in Iowa. Nationally, she has served as chair for the National Council of Measurement in Education outreach committee and the Association of Test Publishers certification and licensure division. Woo is currently a member of multiple testing organization technical advisory groups, including the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In 2019, she was a finalist for the Technology Association of Iowa’s “Emerging Technology Leader of the Year.”
Woo holds a Ph.D. in Quantitative Psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington. Her research interests include personalized learning, adaptive testing, technology-enhanced assessment, and measurement of decision-making as it relates to job performance.