Hook ‘Em Early: The Importance of STEM Education For Girls

Some of my most formative experiences happened over three summers in Seattle beginning when I was 9. A friend’s mother organized a group of my peers to spend two weeks in Washington’s wilderness with graduate students from the University of Washington who taught us about the clouds we were seeing, the trees that were all around us, and the marine critters that inhabited the waters of Puget Sound. We had so much fun we barely noticed we were learning about meteorology, ecology and taxonomy.

This early love of science propelled me to study engineering in college – knowledge that has helped me in every stage of my career, as a petroleum engineer, as a banker in natural resources, as CEO of REI, and now, as Secretary of the Interior. 

I know how important it is to develop a passion for science and math in the next generation of women. At the Department of the Interior, for example, about a third of our employees will be eligible to retire within five years. It’s critically important that we develop the next generation of park rangers, wildlife biologists, scientists and policymakers.

As a department that develops and relies on the best scientific knowledge available, Interior is uniquely devoted to supporting women and girls interested in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). In 2013, for example, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey reached thousands of women in elementary, high school, college and post-graduate programs with educational presentations and internships— including the oldest STEM internship in the country. These activities particularly benefit girls because so many are otherwise “counseled out” of STEM fields – something I experienced in high school myself.

The successes of thousands of young women participating in service projects on lands managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management are receiving increasing recognition. Lesser known successes include the Volunteers in Service to America teams sponsored by the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, which have placed 238 young professional women in capacity-building roles with non-profits in mining communities challenged by environmental degradation.  

There’s no doubt that much work remains to be done to create more opportunities for women. That’s one reason why we are ramping up President Obama’s 21st Century Conservation Service Corps. Like FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, the 21 CSC will create more work opportunities for young people while helping rebuild and enhance our parks, refuges and other public lands. 

Our 21st century version is bigger and broader than the Depression-era Corps because it includes women and the private sector as we strive to bridge the growing disconnect between young people and the outdoors in the digital age.

All of these programs are aimed at supporting the President’s goals for improving the lives of  American women and girls, for promoting STEM education, and for preparing tomorrow’s leaders to preserve our natural resources for future generations.

Click here for a fuller list of accomplishments by the Department of the Interior.   

Sally Jewell is Secretary of the Department of the Interior.

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