THE BLOG
12/04/2014 01:41 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

Collaboration Sets a Woman's Path to a STEM Career

In his mesmerizing chronicle of entrepreneurs who pioneered the first 75 years of the digital revolution, The Innovators author Walter Isaacson writes that teamwork, not rugged individualism, is what ignites groundbreaking innovation in science and technology.

I read Isaacson's book on a flight home from Washington, D.C. where I had cheered on finalists at the Broadcom MASTERS®, Society for Science & the Public's national science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competition. Broadcom MASTERS is a direct descendent of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search that was founded at the end of World War II when Isaacson's story begins.

The Westinghouse Science Talent Search was created in the late 1940s to help nurture a new generation of science and engineering innovators as the winds of the Cold War began to sweep across the nation. Baby Boomers like me remember running in from backyard play to catch the official announcement of "The Westinghouse" winner on Friday night TV- the majority of whom were male.

Fast-forward to the 21st century where the predominance of males exploring STEM careers continues. And, while I am happy to report that the top two winners of our 2014 Broadcom MASTERS were young women, there is cold comfort in this from a national perspective.

Women make up the vast pool of the nation's untapped STEM talent. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 women comprised 45 percent of scientists, 25 percent of mathematicians, 22 percent of technology workers and only 10 percent of engineers, where workforce demand and salaries are among the highest.

This phenomenon is not entirely due to lack of interest or early exposure to science and engineering, as evidenced by the fact that more female middle schoolers than males (52 percent) entered this year's Broadcom MASTERS; it is the manner in which young women's STEM-related interests are cultivated, encouraged and sustained throughout middle and high school.

Although many states are implementing STEM-driven curricula aimed at embedding math, science and engineering and increasing STEM literacy through the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS,) it remains highly likely that without dismantling a part of our traditional pedagogical structure, and the assumptions that support it, teenage girls will continue to shy away from STEM. Girls won't be taking the necessary deep dive into the subjects that are essential requisites to landing exciting, lucrative careers in technology-driven companies.

At a salute to young STEM competitors, President Obama gave a shout-out to a local Brownie troop whose sashes were festooned with STEM badges they earned in troop activities. This triggered a memory of a conversation I had with my older sister, a pioneer in academic medicine who in the 1970s had trained hundreds of pediatricians and pediatric nurses- both predominantly female professions at the time.

She observed that women tend to prefer egalitarian norms in work groups whereas men favor more hierarchical structures. She applied this principle to her highly unorthodox training methods where she visualized her students in a circular structure, defined as a three-dimensional learning sphere, rather than the old-style leadership pyramid. Her trainees were encouraged and rewarded when they tapped others' talents and communicated in a non-hierarchical fashion with colleagues of varying disciplines and experience - a bit like a gaggle of Brownies collaborating to earn their STEM badges.

This got me to thinking that just maybe the most important thing we can do to inspire young women to become STEM innovators is play to their natural inclinations to work together and collaborate in teams.

Just go to any middle school and watch kids between classes and you see girls moving in 'pods.' Girls tend to like to talk, to share, to engage each other in common interests and to enjoy social processes that, while natural for them, have not been formally incorporated into STEM pedagogy. With educators citing collaboration and communication as two of the four most desirable career skills, along with critical thinking and creativity through trial and error, it makes sense that tapping into a female's natural collaborative inclinations can build the pool of heretofore untapped STEM innovation talent.

The value of harnessing the collaborative spirit of women was evident at the Broadcom MASTERS this year where 80 percent of the scoring was based on team-driven creativity and collaboration. Women really shine when it comes to group engagement, as evidenced from the achievements of this year's Samueli Prize winner, Holly Jackson. Holly's science project was a show-stopper to be sure, but quite frankly, it was her ability to apply these 21st century skills of collaboration and communication that wowed the judges. In the words of the chief judge: "She proved herself an engineer who made every collaborator on her team better in undertaking their tasks."

If we want to increase the STEM talent pool, it suits us to explore new and varied ways to take advantage of girl power and foster the inherent collaborative spirit of young women - both in and outside the classroom. In doing so, STEM-minded girls will be inspired and encouraged to apply their natural gifts to stay excited about engineering, math and science into high school, college and beyond.