Marcia Bisland, the new director of the Girls, Math & Science Partnership based out of the Carnegie Science Center, is working to ensure that girls have a fighting chance in today’s increasingly math and science-oriented world.
According to Bisland, the next generation of our workforce will encounter the opening of 1.5 million new science, technology, engineering and math positions. As of now, women hold only 20 percent of jobs in these STEM careers.
Using a series of resources, camps, programs, classes and events, the Girls, Math & Science Partnership seeks to broaden girls’ awareness about math and science starting at a young age. Ultimately, Bisland hopes this will empower more young women to pursue STEM jobs.
So why are STEM careers so significant for girls and young women? According to Bisland, in a world that’s still plagued with the issue of gender inequity, society is effectively cutting its resources in half by underutilizing women.
“Our world needs to take advantage of every opportunity that they have to solve those issues,” said Bisland. “When women are left out of that equation the world is missing out on a lot of opportunity.”
The other part of it is simple economics. STEM jobs have a much higher starting salary than other fields.
“It’s a little bit of economic equality as well as opportunity,” she said.
However, girls have some significant factors working against them. According to Bisland, girls begin to experience a drop-off period for interest in science and math around upper-elementary and middle school.
Pre-existing biases and stereotypes work against progress in class, and ultimately in the STEM fields. Acknowledging and explaining these challenges to girls can go a long way towards improving the situation.
Bisland also pointed out that girls typically hold themselves to higher standards than boys — if a boy and girl were to both receive a B grade in school, the girl would more likely become discouraged while the boy would remain unfazed.
When girls don’t take naturally to subjects like math and science, they assume they’re not good at them, rather than acknowledging that they need time for their brains to learn and grow.
Enter the Girls, Math & Science Partnership, which works to counter this frustration by reducing the pressures of a typical classroom and introducing math and science in a fun, memorable way.
Not only will girls become hooked through hands-on, real-life interactions, they will also feel confident that these types of careers are within their reach, Bisland said.
The program works with a number of organizations to provide unique girls-only experiences. Each relationship allows the Girls, Math & Science Partnership to offer opportunities that get girls excited about learning.
A recent program at the Carnegie Science Center, for example, offered girls a chance to stargaze, while others allow them to make their own soap or experience a scientist’s lab firsthand.
The Girls, Math & Science Partnership also works closely with the Pittsburgh Public Schools, informally educating girls about technology and robotics.
“There’s a certain amount of safety in experiencing that girls-only environment,” said Bisland. “Girls can express themselves and learn without competition.”
Bisland became involved with the Girls, Math & Science Partnership thanks to a diverse background in education, supervision, programming, developing curricula and fundraising. She received her bachelor’s degree in English and elementary education from Allegheny College, then became a teacher.
During this elementary school classroom experience, Bisland taught a number of different subjects to her students, among them math and science. It was here that she began to notice a number of key differences that exist between boys and girls.
She went on to work with the Girl Scouts, helping girls pursue their dreams and learn more about the world around them. It was at that point that she decided to focus on educational programming for girls, and today she works to directly connect professionals in the math and science field with young women.
In her position as director, Bisland hopes to continue expanding programs and offering opportunities to young girls in new formats. She’s also excited about a number of online projects, which will help to increase familiarity with technology.
This includes expansion of braincake.org, the organization’s flagship website, which offers resources such as homework help and mentoring for girls. Another new experience, funded by a recent grant from the MacArthur Foundation, is Click! Online, which allows girls to act as spies and pursue medical mysteries.
At this new point in her career, Bisland is excited about the direction the Girls, Math & Science Partnership is taking. She hopes to continue influencing long-term changes in the educations and careers of young women.
“We’re getting girls excited in any ways we can,” she said.
Tracy Patinski is a full-time graduate student in Carnegie Mellon’s professional writing program and currently interns with The Northside Chronicle.