Women in STEM: Part of the Solution

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A total of 74 middle school girls statewide attended one of two Michigan Women's Foundation University of Life events this summer for leadership development, college and career exploration and guidance, and an in-depth look at STEM careers.

Elly Drain, Youth Development Programs Manager for the Michigan Women's Foundation West Michigan branch, notes the Department of Commerce predicts STEM job openings will grow by 17 percent in the next three years—an estimated 9 million jobs by 2022.

"The problem is a lack of qualified candidates," Drain said. "This is particularly true for women. Women comprise half of the workforce, but they do not choose STEM careers for a number of reasons. Our goal with University of Life is to expose girls to STEM career options that they may not have previously considered."

Hosted at Oakland University and Grand Valley State University, University of Life is a weeklong, residential, on-campus adventure with the goal of helping young women understand how their talents relate to future careers. In addition to offering hands-on STEM activities and real-life budgeting, the program is, at its core, a mentorship experience immersed in entrepreneurship, STEM careers and leadership.

"I think there is a very real opportunity for us to educate our youth on the vast opportunities and diversity of careers within the STEM space," said Kelli Zerbel, Territory Manager at Grand Rapids-based software company SalesPad and University of Life Volunteer.

Zerbel participated in a speed mentoring activity, where she met with girls in small groups for 20 minutes each. During that time, she notes she engaged in candid conversation about each girl's interests in STEM and goals in life.

"The most interesting thing I took away from this experience is how narrowly young women view career opportunities in this space," Zerbel said. "During our discussions, it became very clear that the girls didn't have a grasp on career options outside of the standard medical fields discussed. Girls need to know more about the options that are out there today."

Zerbel notes it's vital to have a diverse mix of individuals in the technology space—including women.

"We all use technology every day," she said. "It has become so ingrained in everything that we do, from how we wake up in the morning to how we track our sleep, and everything in between. How can technology evolve for all of us if we all aren't represented in the creation of that evolution?

"If women want to see technology evolve in ways that uniquely help and support us, we must be part of finding and creating the solutions."

Learn more about University of Life at miwf.org.

Written by Cassie Westrate, staff writer for West Michigan Woman.

Photo courtesy of Michigan Women's Foundation.

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