WHAT WORKS IN KENTUCKY

An Interview
with Susan Ryan

Susan Ryan is the Workforce Readiness Coordinator for Elizabethtown Independent Schools in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where she leads Women in Science (Wi-Sci), a collaborative project between the Elizabethtown Independent Schools and Elizabethtown Community and Technical College, Wi-Sci seeks to generate interest in STEM career fields by involving young girls and young women in high energy, STEM rich events. Most recently, Susan was a featured panelist at the 2015 Kentucky Girls STEM Collaborative Annual Conference, where she discussed effective STEM education strategies.

Q. What is Women in Science? What are the program’s mission and goals?

RYAN: Women in Science is basically the big umbrella name for all of the STEM events that are used to recruit females to our STEM programs and to keep them interested in STEM careers. Basically, what we were finding was that not unlike other schools and other places, girls were becoming disinterested in science and STEM subjects by the time they were exiting elementary school. Then, in middle school, of course, a lot of girls are more concerned with fitting in and making choices that the group tends to make, and we wanted girls to feel confident about their ability to actually pursue a STEM career. We wanted to also spark their interest in STEM careers.

“We wanted girls to feel confident about their ability to actually pursue a STEM career. We wanted to spark their interest in STEM careers.”

Q. How did the program get started?

RYAN: The program really started right after we began our “Project Lead the Way” engineering program at the middle and the high school. We wanted to make sure that we were putting in a pipeline to recruit females into this engineering program.

It’s been very, very successful at doing that. We had a national certification visit with the Project Lead the Way certification team, and when they came in, they told us that basically, they saw more interest in females, more enrollments, and more retention with retaining girls in our engineering program due to the Women in Science STEM events than in other programs that just used a female instructor in those programs. It’s been very successful. We’ve learned a lot as we’ve grown along.

Q. Describe some of the projects and events that Women in Science helps lead.

RYAN: There’s a lot of different events that fall under that Women in Science umbrella. At the elementary school, we have SciGirls Saturdays, and that’s been either one or two Saturdays a year.

 

For the SciGirls events, teachers volunteered their time to come in and teach during this event. It was a half day event. It was for all fourth and fifth grade girls in our school system. We have two elementary schools. At every event, we’ve had anywhere between fifty and sixty percent of fourth and fifth grade girls come back on Saturday to learn about science. That’s huge.

 

If you look at our ESS programs, how hard it is to get youth to come back to extended school services in the summertime and after school services, it’s hard to draw kids in. When we had fifty to sixty percent of the girls show up the very first time we offered this, we thought, “Hey, we’re onto something here. This is really filling a need.” Girls are interested in STEM, and we need to continue this. I think the large numbers help encouraged our teachers who were volunteering their time as well.

 

The day setup goes something like this: They come in and we have a huge Saturday Morning Wakeup. We steal some of these ideas from vacation bible school and other events where we saw kids getting super excited. We would do all kinds of crazy things, have music pumped up loud, and we also played minute-to-minute games onstage, that was how the girls started off their day.

 

From there, each girl attends a breakout session, which is based on the PBS SciGirls series. All of the resources are online at SciGirls CONNECT. Then, during the other half of the SciGirls Saturdays, they would go to demos. It’s kind of cool because the whole event is based on partnerships. Elizabeth town Community & Technical College, they’re our post-secondary partner, and they helped us call in undergrad and graduate students from their programs. They came in and taught the girls various demos, including demos from our robotics students in the engineering program. Our other demos were taught by AP chem students at the high school. That’s been really cool.

Q. What’s next for the program? What’s coming up for the rest of 2015 and beyond?

RYAN: We definitely want to continue the SciGirls program, for sure. We are getting ready to add an Intro to Computer Science class this fall in our middle school, and I’ve already seen several of the girls sign up for that. We’re going to continue to find out what engages these girls, and we’re going to try to match our offerings with what they’re interested in.

 

One thing I did different at this last SciGirls program, at the end of the day, when all the parents were in the auditorium, they had the girls come up, I asked for volunteers, gave the girls the mic, and said, “What impacted you? What was one thing that you loved or that you learned from today?” It was very interesting to hear what they said.

 

One of the girls said from the Big Dream movie, “Well, I realized how I really want to go to college, and if I really want to make that happen, I can do that,” and she talked about one of the young ladies in the Big Dream movie. Now, for fourth and fifth graders, whenever they go to demos… You’re talking about competing with a breakout coding class, demos, and Play-Doh circuits, and a girl walks up to the mic and says what she took away was that she can go to college and she can pursue STEM. I was floored!

 

I was quite shocked, to be honest, and I had two girls say something to that effect, completely different comments, but both referred to the content in that Big Dream movie. I noticed parents paying attention to that, and I thought, “Wow, we need to go somewhere. We need to do some more things with parents, getting them involved,” so that’s one focus, is to do more parent involvement activities, to continue SciGirls.

“We have two elementary schools. At every event, we’ve had anywhere between fifty and sixty percent of fourth and fifth grade girls come back on Saturday to learn about science. That’s huge.”

RYAN: We also offer Women in Science luncheons, where we invite a very engaging speaker, a woman who is in a STEM field, to come in and talk about her experiences entering the STEM field, what kept her curious, what kept the speaker engaged and believing that she could, in fact, pursue a STEM career. Our speakers have also been phenomenal. We always have the luncheons over at ECTC, the community college. Again, they are our post-secondary partner, and so they would provide the lunch for the girls. The president of ECTC always goes there, speaks to the girls as well.

 

We incorporate videos to talk to girls about facts and figures related to STEM. That was from the first year. The second year, we started realizing, we’re going to have to push this down in grade level a little bit, because if we’re reaching out to sophomores and even freshmen, they already have their high school trajectory set in some ways, due to the fact that we’re on a very traditional scheduling system in our high school. We are on the traditional six period day where students only get two electives their first three years in high school. To help us reach those girls earlier, we started to target Women in Science luncheons toward freshmen.

 

What’s interesting is that a lot of the sophomores, juniors, and seniors who have already been involved in this program, whenever we announce a luncheon, if they’re interested, they’ll contact me and say, “Hey, I want to come to this.” It’s really great. I love it. Then, the other thing that we’ve done to push it down is try and figure out what we were going to do with some of the middle schoolers. This grew out of that realization, and it also grew out of when the girls were done with fifth grade SciGirls, they said, “What are we going to do next year? We’re going to be too old for SciGirls, we have to have something.” This year, in response to that, every girl was invited to bring an adult with them to view the Big Dream movie.

 

It’s a movie that was partially funded by the National Girls STEM Collaborative. That was really popular. Got a lot of good feedback from that. Then, for some of our breakout sessions for SciGirls, we had some of the middle school girls who were interested in STEM come in and be leaders. We’ve had super good response.

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