“A lot of people think teacher, lawyer, doctor, those kind of things, but there’s so much more than just a couple of careers out there,” said Manzo, a 10th-grade student at North Hall High School.
Manzo was one of only three female students who enrolled in the inaugural class of North Hall’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Academy. The 2-year-old magnet program is one of the many programs of choice offered by the Hall County School District.
Women across the country hold a disproportionately smaller number of jobs in the booming tech sector than their male counterparts. A 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce revealed only 1 in 7 engineers is female.
But after almost two years sitting in a classroom with 14 boys and only two other girls, statistics don’t seem to matter to Manzo.
“Right now I’m pursuing a pilot’s license, so I just think if I wanted to go into the aviation industry, that (the STEM Academy) would promote that and help me,” Manzo said.
When asked if all the skills she has accrued benefit her self-esteem, STEM Academy student Jordan Hoffman said yes, but her reasoning has little to do with gender.
“I know how to do a lot of stuff that other people don’t know how to do that are in the same age group as me,” Hoffman said.
When the high school first launched the STEM Academy two years ago, the large disparity between female and male applicants wasn’t at the forefront of its co-director’s mind.
“Maybe (it) should have been, but that first year there was not an intentional ‘Hey, we don’t have nearly enough girls in here,’” said Ley Hathcock, an assistant principal, instructor and co-director of the academy. “The thought was like ‘Let’s get this program going and off the ground this first year.’”
But Hathcock’s inaugural STEM Academy applicants were merely a microcosm of the gender imbalance found in STEM fields worldwide.
According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, women earn 57 percent of all undergraduate degrees on average, but only 18 percent of all undergraduate computer and information sciences degrees. They take 56 percent of all Advanced Placement tests, but only 19 percent of AP computer science test-takers are female.
Hathcock, who was an engineer for 20 years before going into education, came to North Hall High from the Da Vinci Academy at South Hall Middle School. He is partially responsible for reviewing applications and selecting the student pool every incoming school year.
“We did pay a lot of attention to (the gender balance) that second year,” Hathcock said.
But there was no need for any incentivization or retooling of the program to attract female students the second go-around. The STEM Academy’s current ninth-grade class is made up of 19 boys and 19 girls who were admitted “with no gender selection involved.”
“If we had needed to do something to incentivize females we would have,” Hathcock said, “but not when the numbers are close like that.”
Hathcock said he believes the gender gap that has plagued the tech industry doesn’t start with education; rather, the gaps in education reflect what’s been going on in the industry.
“The kind of interest level I can get with a female student is probably going to mimic to some degree what’s out there in the industry with adults with jobs,” Hathcock said. “Girls’ role models are not the ones in engineering, necessarily. But as the industry has changed, these girls have so, so many more public role models they can look at and say ‘Yeah, I can do that. I’m interested in that.’”
The STEM Academy program in itself reflects a changing society. When Hall County approved it as a magnet program, the school remodeled an underused mechanic’s shop and added gadgets like a 3-D printer, a robotics station and several software suites.
Instead of following the traditional model of lecturing, taking notes and writing papers, the classes are structured with independent investigations and project-based learning.
Students also regularly take trips into the community to see the skills in action, such as a recent sojourn to a manufacturing facility and another to observe a surgical robot at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
“(The students) are learning some technical literacy skills that are beyond what most kids their age get, even in science and engineering-type classes,” Hathcock said. “We’re giving them real world tools to work with.”
Hathcock’s second generation of STEM girls were prepared by their predecessors’ experience.
“We talked to a bunch of 10th-graders who took it last year and they told us all of the things they learned in the classroom that really apply to real life instead of just normal school,” said Ava Jakel, a ninth-grade STEM Academy student.
Jakel’s favorite project so far was making a movie with her sister, Chelsea, using Adobe Premiere software provided by the school. When it comes to selecting a STEM field she hopes to pursue after high school, Ava Jakel said she can’t decide because there are “too many options.” But there’s plenty of encouragement.
“Everyone around here has been really encouraging no matter if you’re a boy or girl,” she said.