SHU Brings Esteemed Biologist to Bridgeport Aquaculture School

Charlotte Germain-Aubrey

News Story: April 8, 2015

Two dozen Bridgeport Middle School science teachers were treated to a special show-and-tell at their monthly department meeting at the Aquaculture School recently when Charlotte Germain-Aubrey came to talk about women in science and engineering and the attrition of girls from science at various stages.

Germain-Aubrey is a postdoctoral associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History, working on the iDigBio project (www.idigbio.org) to digitize biology information on nearly 1.5 billion species, and the external vice president of the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) program at the University of Florida. In the latter role, she implemented two major outreach programs: a partnership between WiSE and the Undergraduate Minority Mentoring Program and the WiSE Girlz Spring Science Camp, a week-long experience for middle school girls from less privileged backgrounds. Germain-Aubrey’s Bridgeport visit was underwritten by Sacred Heart University and facilitated as community outreach between SHU’s Director of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning Matthew Kaye and Bridgeport Board of Education Director of Science Angela Bhushan.

Germain-Aubrey’s presentation, titled “Inspiring Girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics): The Importance of Immersion and Timing,” began with eye-opening factoids on the low participation and achievement of women in the four disciplines. She noted that only 12 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded by colleges are earned by women in science and engineering; only 4 percent of doctoral degrees are awarded to women in STEM fields; and women are less likely to enroll as full-time students than men.

She explained that stereotypes and bias are reasons why women are not pursuing STEM fields at all or jumping ship early on. “Successful women are disliked; single women are favored for the tenure track; advancement is impacted by children; and a man’s career is given priority,” she explained. “Kids also hear from elder women academics that they had to choose between a career and having a family and chose a career, which has a negative impact on girls,” she said.

The attrition begins at a young age. Germain-Aubrey said that among children 8 to 17 years old, 24 percent of boys are interested in science as opposed to only 5 percent of girls. “The perception of one’s ability determines interest,” she said. “Girls perceived their math skills to be consistently lower. These gender differences in STEM start in middle school and increase in high school and college. STEM is also not deemed appropriate for girls as a culturally prescribed gender role.”

So, how do you “stem” the attrition? Germain-Aubrey suggested that teachers show videos of female engineers explaining the benefits of engineering careers; focus on high-achieving girls and minorities and mentor them in STEM career choices and benefits; reduce competition with/from boys; combat stereotypes through staff/volunteer efforts; and eliminate perceived social barriers.

Germain-Aubrey is seeing success through her WiSE Girlz Spring Science Camp. Founded with her own child in mind, the camp has a limit of 12 participants; is taught by researchers; focuses on all STEM fields, including engineering and computer science; is coordinated by young undergraduate student volunteers; and is very inexpensive to attend. Participants also agree to become ambassadors, helping to spread positive buzz. Germain-Aubrey encouraged the gathering of Bridgeport teachers to replicate the camp in the Park City and offered them guidance on getting sponsorship and evaluation.

Kaye was pleased with the alignment between Sacred Heart, Germain-Aubrey and the Bridgeport Board of Education and its teachers. “This event is part of the ongoing partnership between Sacred Heart and the Board of Education in Bridgeport,” he said. “When the opportunity arises to share resources, we do it. Dr. Germain-Aubrey was already scheduled to speak about climate change to our biology department, so it made sense for her to attend this gathering while she was here. Sacred Heart seeks to support local teachers just as we support the community as a whole.”