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Getting More Girls Into STEM Careers: Lessons From a Principal

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Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

I recently wrote "Engineered to Succeed: Lessons from a Student Pursuing a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Career," and began with a quote from President Obama. I begin 'Part Two' with a quote from the First Lady:

"If we're going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we've got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math." -- First Lady Michelle Obama, Sept. 26, 2011.

Previously I focused on Cindy Arteaga and her experiences as a young Latina woman studying civil engineering and mathematics at Southern Methodist University -- and the path that brought her to that career choice. Part two provides a high school principal's perspective on mentoring young women embarking on STEM careers.

Mansoureh Tehrani is principal of METSA (Math, Engineering, Technology and Science Academy) in Carrollton, Texas. Before becoming an educator, she had an IT career spanning 15 years at companies such as Texas Instruments, Apple Computers and American Airlines and knows "from the inside" what it takes to succeed in a STEM career.

In many ways my own career path paralleled Mansoureh's. From my own early work experiences moving through the ranks in the high tech and software worlds, I understand the challenges faced by young women who choose to pursue this career path.

I asked Mansoureh what guidance she would give to a young woman focusing on a STEM career. "My IT career showed me that many college graduates do not have the right skills for the workforce," explained Mansoureh. "Most knew their content, but did not know how to communicate, collaborate and innovate. I switched careers in the early 1990s to help transform public education."

Many young women do not have women in their lives who can serve as role models for STEM jobs. "In the past (and to some extent now) girls in most cultures did not see women, their mothers, their aunts or their mother's friends holding jobs in high tech fields," said Mansoureh. "So perhaps they think that kind of career is not for them either, but then I point out the number of females in the STEM fields has been growing because of schools like METSA and now many women who are working in these fields are mentoring young girls to pursue such careers."

Currently about 25 percent of the workforce in life sciences and 15 percent of the workforce in engineering/computer science is female. "That is better than what it has been, but not where it should and can be," said Mansoureh. "One thing lacking in most schools is that counselors do not have the necessary training to help girls match their interest to STEM-related fields."

To help address this need for more training, New Tech Network is offering a course on STEM for educators who work in New Tech schools, integrating STEM and Project-Based Learning (PBL). The course asks the driving question: How can STEM teachers improve project quality and increase disciplinary literacy through College Readiness Assessments?

Through project-based learning, New Tech Network teachers are trained to embed literacy and math to projects that have a real world application.

I asked Mansoureh how she helps young women navigate the challenges of pursuing a STEM career.

"In the early adolescent years, there is a certain amount of timidity as well as social barriers that young women confront," said Mansoureh. "We also see the same happening in university settings, where young women in academics are not often sought after as leaders and do not perceive themselves as a team member. By engaging young women early on with real-world experiences and showing them how these 'mentor women' are in control and working on engineering solutions for a better world and positive solutions for diseases, (for example), we can help spark their interest and allow young girls to see themselves in a STEM career."

According to Mansoureh, METSA students also have field-based experiences where they see women working in STEM fields as well as a variety of college visits where they can speak with female students in STEM-related majors.

Mansoureh explained how METSA works to assure that students graduate 'college and career ready'. "METSA classes utilize project-based and problem-based learning. Students are given leadership opportunities to manage their projects in various classes. They get feedback from their peers and the facilitators to improve their leadership traits for the next project. Advisers help students research the best career, find the right college, apply and look for financial support," she said.

"METSA's culture mimics a business world," said Mansoureh. "We expect everyone to take the initiative to diagnose their learning needs, formulate goals, identify necessary resources, choose and implement appropriate strategies and reflect on their accomplishments towards completing professional quality work in a timely manner. The teachers model these attributes for the students and have dialogues with them until it becomes second nature."

We think it's important for a young women pursuing a STEM career to find adults who believe in them and their potential, and to learn how to build support systems. Asking for help and learning from every encounter will further enhance the likelihood of success. Add to that a school like METSA, and you have the recipe for a successful college and career STEM experience. We're also working on having schools like METSA be broadly available for many more young women and men.

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