Valley Catholic seventh-graders Sabina Lindner and Tessa Curl work on a “Rainbow Lab” in chemistry to practice precision and the scientific method. Kalani Efstathiou, Valley Catholic math teacher, said the Beaverton school’s founding by the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon is empowering for girls. The women religious “are such strong role models,” he said. (Courtesy Valley Catholic)
Valley Catholic seventh-graders Sabina Lindner and Tessa Curl work on a “Rainbow Lab” in chemistry to practice precision and the scientific method. Kalani Efstathiou, Valley Catholic math teacher, said the Beaverton school’s founding by the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon is empowering for girls. The women religious “are such strong role models,” he said. (Courtesy Valley Catholic)

A 6-year-old Lara Shamieh was at the Oregon coast with her family when she discovered a dead shark washed up on the beach. It was rotting and smelled foul, but the little girl rushed up to investigate. “I was so excited because I wanted to see what was inside,” said Shamieh, now 40. Shamieh grabbed a piece of drift wood and used it as her first-ever dissection instrument, carefully probing and studying the cartilaginous fish. 

Rather than drag their daughter away from the smelly specimen, her parents told her, “We are going to sit right over there, and you tell us what you find,” recalled Shamieh, laughing that “they bathed me well that night.”

She sees that day at the beach as a defining moment, an impetus for a fulfilling career in biology. Shamieh would go on to be a college professor and publish scientific papers; she currently teaches biology at Jesuit High School in Southwest Portland.

Nurturing children’s natural curiosity about the world, as her parents did, is an important part of closing the gender gap that remains in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, said Shamieh. In K-12 education, the disparity between male and female student achievement has nearly closed, but women still earn far fewer STEM degrees and are underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce.

In many ways, Catholic schools such as Jesuit are uniquely suited to the task of engaging girls in STEM long term. Not only can they heighten students’ appreciation of the disciplines by incorporating faith, but they also provide strong female role models, supportive communities and creative curriculums that help girls feel confident and excited about tackling STEM.

Patricia Morrell, president of the Association for Science Teacher Education and director of the , said it’s crucial that more females embrace the disciplines traditionally dominated by men. Not only do they offer different perspectives and solutions but “without women, we aren’t going to fill the slots, and we are missing out on the brains of half the population,” she said. “Education is going in the right direction,” Morrell added, “but we need to keep at it.”

Imperfect progress

Thanks to efforts by teachers and administrators, as well as cultural shifts, female public school students’ achievement in mathematics and science is now on par with their male peers, according to the 2016 “Science and Engineering Indicators” report by the National Science Foundation. Equivalent data is not available for Catholic schools, but based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Catholic schools consistently outperform public schools in science.

Morrell said there was a big push in schools about 25 years ago to increase female participation in the STEM fields, and that paralleled cultural changes.

The approach to teaching STEM also has evolved, with schools providing more experiment-based, hands-on instruction, said Shamieh.

Yet progress lags beyond the walls of elementary and high schools. According to National Science Foundation data, women earn more than 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in the United States but only about 18 percent of computer science degrees, 19 percent of those in engineering and 43 percent of the degrees in mathematics. In the biological sciences, more women earn bachelor’s degrees than men. Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce but compose only 29 percent of the science and engineering labor force. 

Older women “paved the way for my generation,” but clearly challenges remain, said Shamieh.

“Unfortunately, there’ still the message, a subtext, that society gives girls telling them they should be weak and not smart and that it’s cute to say they don’t know something, even when they get it,” she said.

Morrell, who as head of the STEM Education and Outreach Center works to improve STEM education for K-12 students, believes in the average classroom girls are called on less and given easier, less open-ended questions than boys. Manipulative toys such as Legos still are predominately marketed to boys, she said.

For women who enter STEM fields and are raising children, inadequate support means “they often fall behind and catching up is really difficult,” Shamieh said. “The 40-hour work week doesn’t exist” for many scientists, she said, pointing out that research requires extraordinarily long hours.

Shamieh notes the broader societal changes will not only come from women, but that men must speak up, too.

Role models and creativity

Rachel McKenna is a Catholic school principal in California who wrote her doctoral dissertation on how Catholic schools fare at engaging girls in STEM.

McKenna, whose study was based on schools in Silicon Valley, said she found that Catholic schools have a distinct ability to foster girls’ love of math, science, technology and engineering because they have more flexibility than public schools “to think outside the box when it comes to curriculum.” They also have strong female role models and supportive family environments that similarly strengthen girls interest in STEM.

The power of role models means it’s “really, really important for us female scientists to be public and be involved,” said Shamieh, adding that is especially true for women of color. Only 11 percent of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering are awarded to minority women, according to National Science Foundation data.

Shamieh, of Palestinian decent, recalled a recent encounter with a Hispanic student. “She told me: ‘It’s so inspiring to see someone who looks like me doing what I want to do.’”

The widespread influence of women religious on Catholic education also benefits female students.

Kalani Efstathiou, sixth- and eighth-grade math teacher at Valley Catholic School, said the Beaverton school’s founding by the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon in 1903 “is empowering to girls.”

“The school was established by strong-willed women who are such powerful role models,” he said.

At the all-girls St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, student enthusiasm for STEM reaches especially high levels. More than 40 percent of St. Mary’s graduates say they intend to pursue math or science in college.

A number of studies indicate that the shift in classroom dynamics when boys are absent means graduates of all-female schools are up to six times more likely to consider majoring in a STEM discipline compared with their peers at co-ed schools.

The benefits of single-gender instruction — which some believe come with limitations, such as not fully preparing girls for mixed-gender colleges and careers — have been felt at Holy Cross School in North Portland. This academic year the middle school math class is split by gender several days a week. “Middle school is such a tough time in these kids’ lives; they are hyper-conscious of what their peers think, especially the opposite sex,” said Julie Johnson, Holy Cross principal. She said in the split classes “the guys are calmer and the girls are more energized.”

For fifth-grade girls in the archdiocese, including from Holy Trinity School in Beaverton and St. Agatha School in Southeast Portland, STEM learning has been enhanced by St. Mary’s Academy’s innovative TIES (teaching, integrating and exploring science) mentoring program.

Across the Portland Archdiocese, STEM-based participation also is high among girls in co-ed environments. At St. John the Baptist School in Milwaukie, girls make up about 80 percent of the Lego robotics class. And at Central Catholic High School in Portland there is a new club called Girls Who Code, a national program in which female students learn how to build a website, robot or app using programming languages.

Pondering creation 

Catholic schools “should try to create a community school climate that reproduces, as far as possible, the warm and intimate atmosphere of family life,” said Archbishop Michael Miller, then secretary for the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, in 2005. In her dissertation, McKenna points out that such a climate encourages girls to be risk-takers, collaborate with peers and gain a strong sense of self — all valuable in fostering an interest in STEM.

But Shamieh said that Catholic schools also add another layer to education. Science gives the “how,” religion gives the “why,” and at their best Catholic schools unite the two, providing a holistic understanding of the world in a way that secular education cannot. For girls, as well as boys, said Shamieh, the desire to immerse themselves in the sciences, math, technology or engineering — and perhaps pursue a STEM career — can emerge when students simultaneously grasp scientific facts and experience “that awe, wonder and joy” that comes when they ponder God’s creation.