Bridging the Gender Gap in Science 

Creative programs to engage female students in STEM

March 20, 2014

When during the 19th Century, Russian authorities outlawed science labs in Polish schools, one young girls’ family set up a laboratory in their home to ensure she would still have access to a science education. The girl’s name was Marie Curie, and she is the only person ever to win a Nobel Prize in both Physics and Chemistry.


Curie’s story illustrates how providing them with the tools they need at an early age can ignite a passion for science among girls. This is part of the mission of Women in Biology Chicago, an organization committed to promoting careers, leadership and entrepreneurship of women in science.


As part of her mission to expand STEM education for all students, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett recently spoke at the WIB Women’s History Event, which explored bridging the gender gap in the life sciences.


“At CPS, I have been focused on promoting the entrance and advancement of young women in STEM education and careers, because this is a field where women are currently under-represented,” said CEO Byrd-Bennett. “Increasing opportunities for women in these fields is an important step towards realizing greater economic success and equality for women across the board.”


Over the past two years, CPS has created more than 20 new STEM schools and programs, many of which have found creative ways of actively engaging female students. Take Carl Von Linne Elementary, where technology teacher Jodi Mahoney runs an after-school tech club specifically for girls.


“This group is currently creating a video to educate prospective students about all that Linne has to offer,” said Jodi. “They are learning the basics of video, like how to work with cameras, edit video clips and add special effects. They’ve also learn the basics of audio engineering and run the audio equipment during school assemblies.”


Jodi also teaches a class called Women in Technology, where students are learning to use Live Code, an open source coding language for developing website and smart phone apps. Additionally, she manages a Parent TECH Night Group – a collection of girls who create and host an annual technology class for their parents to teach them basic Internet skills.


Other CPS schools have enlisted external partners to help them better engage girls. Finkl Elementary, for example, has invited an organization known as Sisters4Science to conduct a weekly after-school science experience exclusively for girls.


“I’ve been very impressed with the quality of this program,” said Finkl Assistant Principal Bertha Arredondo. “The skills and hands-on experience the girls are receiving have been top notch, and they look forward to exploring the sciences each week.” Active in Chicago since 1999, Sisters4Science currently brings STEM programming to students in six CPS schools. This after-school program targets girls and minority youth, connecting them with female scientists and engaging them with creative, hands-on activities in science and technology.


“It’s about curiosity, fun and engagement,” said Natasha Smith-Walker, Executive Director of Project Exploration, which administers Sisters4Science. “We recruit female scientists and engineers for guest lecturing, and provide a staff of female STEM facilitators to help students conduct scientific experiments, learn about nutrition, and participate in engineering activities.”


On May 9, Sisters4Science will take several CPS students to Girls Health and Science Day - a conference on understanding and shaping their digital footprint. The group also provides programming during spring and summer breaks, including an upcoming event at the Union League Boys and Girls Club focused on computer science and coding, urban health, and environmental programs.


"All of these programs are a great opportunity to help female students focus on developing technology skills in an environment where they feel empowered," said Jodi Mahoney. "Technology educators continue to be concerned about the number of female students entering STEM programs in higher education and career, so we need to find creative ways to engage them, build their confidence, and encourage their participation in these fields."

Page Last Modified on Thursday, March 20, 2014