STEM Women Stories: Aspire and Inspire

04/13/2015 05:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2015

The push to attract women to STEM education and careers is gaining steam, but the impact is questionable. Young women have ample cause to be discouraged given the decrease of the number of women professionals in many STEM fields. Bucking the trend, efforts to encourage women to embrace STEM have increased dramatically. Those efforts span the country, including in Tennessee where the Women Ground Breakers recently held their annual Chattanooga GroundBreaking Storytelling featuring women in STEM.

With the goal to Inspire & Aspire, the storytellers shared the challenges they overcame, the trends they see emerging, and their words of wisdom for young women. The nominees chosen to be storytellers were a diverse group of women. Here are four of these storytellers and their perspectives on women in STEM. They included an immigrant, a first- generation born American, an American transplant to the Southeast, and a Southern African American.

Dr. Neslihan Alp is Interim Dean at UTC College of Engineering and Computer Sciences. Born in Turkey, Dr. Alp learned French before learning English and never saw a computer before emigrating for an engineering degree. She became an online learning pioneer, a mother of two, and one of UTC's youngest faculty members. She progressed to Department Head, Assistant Dean, and is the only woman to become Interim Dean.

TRENDS: An exciting developments in STEM is a major trend in the corporate world that emphasizes team work. Employers now need not only STEM skills, but also soft skills that can be applied to team building and leadership development. In addition, there is a need for crossover expertise and for the flexibility to do multi- tasking. Management positions will require these skills at all levels, whether on the manufacturing floor, with vendors, partners, clients, and community leaders.

EDUCATION & CAREERS: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields are our future and young people should be open to the opportunities that STEM education can bring them. Young women in particular should follow the emerging trends closely. They can combine a STEM education with the decision-making, communication, and sensitivity skills that are so often nurtured in women since childhood. Women can place data into a human context, anticipate the audience's response, and customize their approach for better results. Women can combine their people skills with technical skills and increase their future career opportunities.

Sheila Boyington is the President of Thinking Media/Learning Blade and National Senior Adviser, STEMconnector/Million Women Mentors. A first generation American whose mother was from India, Sheila has won numerous awards for her Entrepreneurship and Leadership including the Athena, Navigator of Entrepreneurship, Supernova, and Chattanooga Engineer Entrepreneur of the Year. Sheila holds a Masters Degree in Civil/Environmental Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Florida.

TRENDS: We need to grow our STEM workforce. STEM jobs are expected to grow 17 percent by 2018, but the number of college graduates in STEM fields continues to decline and is down 24 percent from two decades ago. Women make up 50 percent of the college-educated workforce, but only 14 percent of engineers are women and just 27 percent are in computer science and math positions. A lack of ethnic diversity means that only 6 percent of STEM workers are Hispanic and African American.  

EDUCATION & CAREERS: Women are a large potential pool of STEM workers. Yet, college freshmen who express an interest in STEM are 44 percent male and only 15 percent female. For every 8 boys that plan to pursue STEM, only 1 girl does. Girls often pursue STEM career pathways when they know about them, but they often have no exposure to the possibilities. Girls choose STEM more often when it's taught in the context of helping society and making a difference, but that is often not the case. Creative ways to expose and mentor women and girls can and will lead to an increase in women in STEM. 

Alyssa J. Montague is Document Control Manager at Hutton Construction, Inc. She spent "Take Your Daughter to Work Days" at a water treatment plant with her father bonding with him over construction, auto repair, golf, and hockey. Defying the usual roles of women in construction, she uses her IT expertise to build a new filing system, train co-workers, and trouble-shoot her creation.

TRENDS: Smarter automation functionality and ability to customize will be game changers in the future. Technology changes so quickly, that it's the person who keeps up-to-date on the latest and greatest who will excel. Companies are always looking for ways to get more done faster and take advantage of advances in the automation of workflow. They are continually looking for the right person who is willing to go above and beyond to customize and streamline the way things get done.

EDUCATION & CAREERS: The world needs more engineers, scientists, and technology and math specialists to lay the groundwork for change. The news is scary these days, with more violence, bigger natural disasters, global warming, corrupt politicians, war -- the list goes on. Unless we make a concerted effort to educate our youth in the basic STEM fundamentals, humanity is going to continue to blunder its way through life. We're slowly killing our world, and ultimately ourselves, unless we can change the way people think, and quickly. The person with the solution to one of these problems could be out there, but without guidance and education, nothing will change.

Lakweshia Ewing is a co-owner at Biz Boom Apps, LLC. She was born into poverty, but dreamed of becoming a game-changing, breakthrough pioneer of new technology. She has degrees in Psychology, Educational Administration, and is a doctoral candidate in Organizational Leadership. Lakweshia has a passion for service, whether through her youth ministry, helping small business owners, or serving on the board of numerous civic groups.

TRENDS: The internet was created so that we have access to any information, from anyone, about anything we are quite literally drowning in data. While we have created some very useful search engines like Google, even they are having a hard time separating meaningful information from the meaningless. As a result, over the next decade we will see significant changes in how we interact with the internet. We're already seeing those changes with websites like Wolfram Alpha which "computes" answers to queries rather than simply returning search hits, and Microsoft's Bing, which helps take some of the guesswork out of searches. As technology and devices like phones, TVs, computers, and cars become increasingly connected, we should prepare for rapid changes in how we interact with, and make sense, of the internet.

EDUCATION & CAREERS: As the workforce evolves, STEM knowledge and skills are becoming more necessary in many professional arenas. We face both the challenges and successes of a knowledge-based global economy. Technological and scientific innovations are the future of our society's growth.  Yesterday's STEM strategies will not sustain students in this new information age. Young ladies of today must develop their educational capacities to higher levels, beyond the innovations of the past.

CONCLUSION: What can we take away from these four women of different backgrounds, generations, and STEM fields? Here are responses from at the STEM Women Storytelling attendees and storytellers.

Education: "I was completely blown away by the inspirational stories, and I could really connect to some of the recurring themes, especially about "late-bloomers" who found a passion for STEM fields after pursuing other degrees. I have an undergraduate degree in Literature and now I'm contemplating returning to school for studies in sciences." ~ corporate executive/ attendee

Mentors: "There are many applications for STEM and young people should be introduced to the opportunities in various fields early in their education. I hope that young people have mentors in their teens, as I did, who can coach them if they have an interest in a STEM field. However, I do encourage students to pursue their passion, not just a potential job prospect." ~ Storyteller Sonya Reid

Social Technology: "Study the field of social technology, not because it's the future, but because it's already here. Every day, new developments lessen the gap between ideas, industries, and people. Though still a new and fragile field, it's become an essential part of doing business. Young people should be building the future of social technology or, at the very least, learning how to market and leverage it in whatever field they choose to pursue." ~ Storyteller Jemila Morson

Be inspired by the videos of all eight Women in STEM storytellers at Sign up for the free downloadable STEM Women Study Guide. Feel free to use these materials as teaching tools and to help women Aspire & Inspire.