Caroline* stood on stage and tentatively reached her hands out to touch the shining dome of a Vandegraaf Generator.
With the flick of a switch and a gentle hum from its static-electrically generated motor, her sandy blond hair leapt into the air. She grinned, wildly. Her classmates roiled with laughter, then broke into spontaneous applause.
It was just another day at Duke Energy’s World of Energy at Oconee Nuclear Station, one that bore out a truism of this education center sitting on the shores of Lake Keowee in upstate South Carolina: nearly every young girl has the same reaction when stepping through our doors. They are excited. Curious. Eager to learn more about the role science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) play in their day-to-day lives.
And it’s the same outside the doors, too. When World of Energy staff visit classrooms in Greenville, Pickens and Oconee counties, girls are some of the most engaged students, shooting their hands in the air to answer questions about how nuclear fission works, or to identify obscure elements on the periodic table.
Government and non-profit studies bear out what we see at the local level. The National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP), a non-profit organization that promotes girls’ interest and engagement in STEM fields and careers, reports more girls take pre-calculus, advanced algebra and advanced biology than boys during high school.
However, a curious thing happens when these girls advance in their scholastic career and, later, the workforce: they are woefully underrepresented.
“While women receive over half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, they receive far fewer in the computer sciences (18.2%), engineering (19.2%), physics (19.1%), and mathematics and statistics (43.1%),” the NGCP reports, citing data from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Workforce data shows that this disparity continues after graduation. While women make up 47 percent of the total workforce in the United States, only 13 percent of engineers are women. And a mere 25 percent of women make up the workforce in computer science and mathematics fields, according to the NSF.
Why does it matter? For starters, women on average earn 33 percent more if they have a STEM-related career. But that’s just part of the picture. Technology is growing at a fantastic pace, and the challenge it presents may well decide America’s economic future. Because women earn just 45 percent of STEM degrees—and government projections indicate there could be as many as 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs by 2018—doesn’t it make sense for us encourage everyone to see if a STEM career is right for them?
That’s what we believe at the World of Energy. We see our education center as an extension of the classroom, fostering in all children a love of knowledge and learning—with an emphasis on how science, technology, engineering and mathematics shape our world.
And just maybe we’ll see more girls like Caroline take their place in a world that desperately needs her.