Leggings and boots, a hunting camouflage hoodie sweatshirt, basketball shorts and team shirts, and painted fingernails stuck out from behind desks and computer screens on a recent afternoon in a Montana Tech computer lab, where 13 teenage girls gathered for Girls Excelling in Math and Science Club. They worked together to solve cryptogram word puzzles by detecting patterns and using contextual clues.
Two of these girls were Elli Quist and Ally Kukay, both 11. This was their second year with the club, and they had just come to the recent late afternoon meeting from basketball practice.
“It’s really fun," Kukay said. "We’re learning things they don’t always teach us in school.”
“It’s a great way to make new friends and a good way to branch out,” Quist added. “And it’s a way to power up against the boys.”
From upcycling sweaters into Christmas stockings to dissecting frogs and starfish, the GEMS Club offers fifth- through eighth-graders a hands-on introduction to the STEM fields and aims to empower young women interested in math and science.
Ronda Coguill, director of GEMS, said she and a friend started the club in 2014 with grant funding from the Women’s Foundation of Montana as a place where girls can participate in science and engineering activities in a safe, enriching environment.
Five years later, Coguill said that mission to promote STEM learning, innovation, and creativity is the same, though the curriculum changes year to year.
“The saying I always use is, 'We remove the competition to compete,'” Coguill said. “These girls are fiercely competitive, but here they don’t have to compete to be heard in the first place.”
Coguill explained that she has spent the majority of her career as a materials scientist as the only woman in the room. Through the GEMS Club, Coguill hopes to empower young women by showing them their place in that room is justified -- and that they can think just as inventively as anyone else.
“We try not to get too preachy; we just lead by example,” said Coguill, who runs her own technology and engineering business in Butte with her daughter.
Coguill wasn’t at the most recent GEMS meeting. Instead, Hillary Risser, head of the Montana Tech math department, led the club’s cryptogram decoding activity.
“We have a shortage of women in math and science fields, so any time we can encourage girls to see math and science as their future is not an opportunity to waste,” Risser said.
Risser explained that she was one of four women who graduated alongside 40 men from the Computational and Applied Mathematics program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
According to the National Science Board’s 2018 Science and Engineering Indicators report, women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce, though less so than in the past.
In 2015, women constituted only 28 percent of workers in science and engineering occupations, even though they accounted for half of the college-educated workforce overall. In 1993, 22 percent of science and engineering workers were women, the report said.
For Risser, the GEMS club is an opportunity to show women they can excel in these male-dominated fields while also introducing them to women role models.
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Sara Magallón, a Tech geological engineering student, expressed similar thoughts about the club.
Magallón has volunteered with the GEMS Club for the past two years. She said that working with the club provides a good way to share personal experiences from the field with the young women, and she hopes to bring in a panel of women scientists to talk with the GEMS girls.
“This club is a privilege for these girls and exposes them to a lot of different activities,” Magallón said, noting that it’s often hard to get exposed to STEM at a young age. “It’s also a great way to give back to the community.”
Magallón was an English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, student. She said working with numbers and hands-on learning came easier for her and that she pursued an engineering degree because it suited her strengths. But she noted that it isn’t easy being a woman in the field.
“I feel I always have to work two times harder to prove I’m doing things correctly. … I end up second guessing myself and putting in more effort,” Magallón said.
Magallón isn’t alone.
There’s a club for college women in engineering on Tech’s campus, too. The Society of Women Engineers is made up of about 30 women enrolled in various types of engineering programs. The variety is what makes the club unique, said Lily Birch, SWE’s president. A few weeks ago during National Engineers Week, Birch talked about how the Tech society is a good way for women engineers to connect on campus and that the group plans to become more involved with the GEMS Club.
“It’s hard for them to understand what STEM really involves,” Birch said, referring to middle and high school students. “You don’t have to go into research; you don’t have to work for NASA. There are so many different things you can do.”
Birch went on to explain that the lack of knowledge related to potential STEM job options is especially true with engineering. She believes people don’t understand the different engineering types and job possibilities out there. Even Birch herself didn’t learn much about the field until she got to Tech, she said. That's why she and the Society of Women Engineers want to help the GEMS Club members and other teens better understand these possibilities, Birch said.
“We want to do more school outreach and explain what students can do at Tech … not even targeted at girls, necessarily, but for everyone,” Birch said.
While outreach for all is important, two members at the recent GEMS Club meeting talked about how meaningful it is to have an all-girls club.
“I feel like there are a lot of clubs that are only boys, so having a club with just girls is nice because we can all relate to each other,” said Danika Carr, 10.
Kimberly Breitbach, 11, agreed with Carr.
As the first-year GEMS members worked to decode the cryptogram on the computer in front of them, they talked about all of their favorite club experiments thus far, how they felt it was important to have clubs, and how they viewed science, often finishing each other’s sentences.
Breitbach said, “You can learn so many things through science, it’s just...”
“An adventure. It’s adventurous,” Carr said, finishing the thought.