Women, science and the STEM of a problem

Women today are vastly underrepresented in the “STEM” fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and a national movement is underway to change that. Television shows such as PBS Kids’ “SciGirls” and educational projects like Black Girls CODE and Techbridge work to develop in young girls an inquiring mind, a passion for the sciences and the skills needed for successful STEM careers.

But women weren’t always left out.

Wheaton Provost Linda Eisenmann, a historian of women’s education, was one of three guest speakers on a recent Web chat hosted by the Google Cultural Institute/Google Art Project titled “Women and STEM Education: A Conduit to Opportunity.” During the chat, Eisenmann talked about how in the 19th century women played an important role in teaching science and advancing scientific knowledge at various higher learning institutions in the United States. Well before the rise of the research university, scientific learning was occurring in small colleges and academies that focused on advanced training, such as Wheaton Female Seminary, the precursor to Wheaton College.

“It hasn’t always been this way,” Eisenmann said, referring to the low number of women involved in STEM fields. “… Girls and young women in the 1800s were very comfortable with science. It was very much hands on.”

Science programs at that time helped students—boys and girls alike—develop an understanding of the natural world around them, with a particular focus on botany. Classes also helped girls gain practical knowledge that could help them as wives and mothers: understanding how to make a safe home, what to eat and how to prepare nutritious foods.

As private women’s colleges such as Wellesley and Vassar began to open in the 1860s and 1870s, women gained the opportunity not only to study science but also to teach it, Eisenmann said.

“Women did have academic careers in the sciences. They did study the sciences, all throughout the 19th century. But late in the 19th century and up until about the early 1900s the research universities began to grow … and those were the very places where women were least represented,” she said.

The Web chat aired live on June 10 as a Google+ Hangout and was part of a Google Art Project series called Art Talks, which features art professionals from around the world discussing various topics and issues. This chat was co-sponsored by the National Women’s History Museum and featured Sydnee Winston, project coordinator for the museum, as well as guest speakers Eisenmann, Mimi Lufkin, CEO of the National Alliance for Partnership and Equity, and Wendy Hancock, manager of professional development services at the Association of Science Technology Centers.

The “Women and STEM Education” Art Talk can be viewed in the Art Talk archives on YouTube.