Do you want girls to pursue STEM learning? Hear what women scientists at NASA have to say

Gena Henderson, chief of the Integrative Operations Branch in NASA’s Exploration Systems and Operations Division, said her love of STEM began at a young age. Henderson grew up about 50 miles from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and frequently watched rocket launches.

When Henderson was in college studying engineering, some professors were unsupportive and made dismissive comments, questioning her decision to enter the engineering field.

But she persevered and is thrilled to be a part of the innovation now happening at NASA.

Henderson was one of the panelists at the opening session of the Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers Summer Symposium 2022.

The virtual session, held on July 19, focused on what educators and after-school program providers can do to ensure they engage girls and other underrepresented students in STEM. Panelists included women who work at NASA and women who work in organizations trying to spark girls’ interest in STEM.

Female representation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs varies widely. While there is a higher proportion of women in science-related health care jobs, women continue to be underrepresented in computer science and engineering jobs.

Women and girls have to break down barriers to be successful in STEM jobs. Barriers include:

  • gender stereotypes
  • math anxiety
  • Male-dominated workplaces
  • fewer role models

“Some may see STEM fields as more masculine,” said Patti Curtis, Robert Noyce/Ellen Lettvin STEM Education Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education. “Some educators and parents underestimate a girl’s math skills from the start. preschool”.

“Many STEM fields are male-dominated cultures, which can perpetuate inflexible and exclusionary environments that do not support or attract women,” added Curtis.

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All panelists agreed that the most important thing for girls is to have role models in the fields that interest them.

“Sometimes students don’t have a road map,” Henderson said. “They don’t know anyone in the effort [they want to get into].”

Girls tend to have fewer role models to pique their interest in STEM, the panelists noted, and rarely see examples of female scientists and engineers in popular culture.

“If you were Googling ‘computer scientists’ right now, you probably wouldn’t see a young woman appear in your search,” said Jackie Smalls, director of programs at, an organization that is working to encourage more women and students of color to enter STEM fields.

Panelists also said that students should be involved in STEM from the beginning of their school careers with hands-on learning activities in school and outside of school. Students should not learn about these opportunities for the first time in high school.

Deanna J. Whitehead, chief of NASA’s flight and ground software and simulation division, spoke about her sixth-grade teacher who helped her do well at the local science fair and encouraged her to compete regionally. . Her experience gave her confidence and encouraged her to pursue a STEM career.

“It was those experiences, maybe little experiences, that add up, that get you to where you will eventually get to,” Whitehead said.

She added that she is grateful for the “many wonderful female role models” at the Marshall Space Flight Center, where she works. “I don’t know what could be more encouraging than that.”

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