According to Sally Hicks, interim dean of the University of Dallas’ Constantin College and a professor of physics, the number of female students involved in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) decreases as they advance in school. In elementary school, equal numbers of boys and girls express an interest in science, she says, but “the pipeline starts to constrict for women in high school and beyond.”
While more women are starting to go into some of the sciences, “physics, engineering, math and computer science are still incredibly underrepresented by women at the undergraduate level. If you move to the graduate level, women in biology and chemistry disappear as well.”
In an effort to encourage more young women to pursue careers in STEM, female STEM University of Dallas (UD) students joined to form a “Women in STEM” club in 2017. Among its founders was Rebecca Kolbeck, who graduated from the school with a biology degree in May. She explained, “The club was formed to build a community of people interested in supporting women in STEM fields.”
Creating a network
The creation of a network of students, professors and professionals who would visit and speak at the campus, she continued, helps “young women to navigate how to enter STEM fields and become future leaders in STEM professions.”
Sophia Andaloro, a senior physics major and another group founder, believes that women are often discouraged from STEM careers, and such a network can help provide female STEM students the crucial support they need. She said, “I wanted our members to feel welcome to ask questions that they haven’t been able to field anywhere else, and to meet professionals who have paved diverse and successful paths in order to give them an idea of their options after graduation.”
Andaloro believes STEM mentors have kept her “on the path that I am on today,” and that “women in STEM have common ideals, interwoven through our many backgrounds and talents. That should be celebrated!”
Women in STEM has 20-30 active members, and larger events featuring speakers can draw as many as 60. Activities include speakers, inverse interviews, breakout sessions with STEM professionals, teatime and discussion and movie outings. Female professionals who have spoken at the club, Hicks said, have not only been generous with their time but have given the young women insight into “the rewards and challenges of combining advanced study and research with family life, which is a major concern of female students everywhere.”
Kolbeck, for example, recalled one female speaker who wanted to complete a Ph.D. program but also wanted to marry and have a family. She said, “It was interesting to see how she was maintaining a work-life balance.”
Andaloro liked the “inverse interviews” day, when 13 STEM professionals came for an evening and students had the opportunity to rotate around the room speaking to each. “The opportunities for STEM majors became clear as I met financial advisors, investors, research scientists, entrepreneurs and healthcare providers all in one evening. ... It demonstrated the span of possibilities available to STEM majors,” she said.
Kolbeck plans on attending medical school at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the fall. While she’s left UD, she’s grateful for the network of STEM professionals she’s been able to build through the club who can help her with issues that may arise in the future. Andaloro hopes to earn a Ph.D. after graduation and engage in industrial research or be part of an international research group.
According to Hicks, students offered “very positive feedback” about the club. Kolbeck added that Women in STEM has already achieved several of its goals, chief among them the forming of a group of women and men interested in supporting women in STEM.
Strong in STEM and faith
The University of Dallas is a private Catholic college founded in 1956. Nine of its original professors, or half its faculty, were Hungarian Cistercian priests who fled a repressive communist government in Hungary. The faculty is mostly lay today, but more than 75 percent of the student body is Catholic. Many UD graduates have gone on to the priesthood and religious life; 11 alumni are bishops.
UD is located on a 744-acre site in Irving, Texas, 10 miles away from downtown Dallas. It serves 3,000 students, an even mix of undergraduate and graduate. UD offers a wide variety of majors; among the most popular are biology, business and English. The school also offers a popular study abroad Rome program at its 12-acre Eugene Constantin campus, Due Santi, near Rome, “where students can pursue an integrated sequence of courses and travel related to their core curriculum requirements,” said Callie Ewing, a UD graduate and representative of the school. “The program is unique in the realm of study abroad programs because students study on UD’s campus with UD classmates and are taught by UD professors,” she added.
And, UD is strong in its coursework it offers in STEM. Hicks described the quality of education at UD as “quite rare,” and explained, “our STEM students receive the best of both worlds: a strong humanities background and strong majors with research components.”
Kolbeck said her UD education helped her become “a well-rounded and independent thinker with a desire to pursue the truth.” It also gave her the chance to mature in her Catholic faith, as she has “grown to see the logic and reason in Catholicism.”
Andaloro lauded the STEM faculty: “It’s impossible to praise the UD STEM faculty too much. They work so hard and oftentimes I see my professors working on the weekends, in the early mornings and late into the evenings. They are all so dedicated to us, and their support and dedication to students is the best characteristic of UD.”
She’s looking forward to being active with Women in STEM in the 2018-19 school year, both on campus and beyond: “I hope to get in contact with local schools and meet with high school students to be support for them; impacting the generations of students to come is crucial to our ideals and to the success of UD and our society.”
Jim Graves writes from California.