OSHKOSH, Wis. (AP) — As one of the 10 female welding students in a program with 124 males, Amber Kraemer can tell you a thing or two about perseverance.
She initially pursued a degree from Fox Valley Technical College in the field, which increasingly relies on robotics, programming and mathematics, because of its positive career prospects and what she sees as an appealing marriage of science and art.
“It’s intimidating (stepping into a male dominated field), but it also gives me something to prove that I can do it,” Kraemer, 32, told the Oshkosh Northwestern. “It’s motivation to do better, and most of the time I can probably weld better than the men anyway.”
Today, there are more women like Kramer than ever crossing traditional gender lines and pursuing science, technology, engineering and math-related degrees.
More than 1,000 women, or roughly one in 15 female students at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and FVTC combined, were pursuing STEM-related degrees during the 2011-12 school year, data provided by the institutions shows. That’s a 56 percent increase from four years earlier. Total female enrollment during that time grew 23 percent.
University and college officials credit the growing interest in STEM studies to outreach efforts aimed at high school and middle school girls as well as state and national attention on those career fields.
“Women are more likely to think about science if their parents encourage them and their high school teachers encourage them. That will get them to sign up for a class their freshman year (of college),” said Jennifer Mihalick, a UWO chemistry professor and director of Women in Science, a UW System-wide program aimed at attracting and retaining female science students.
High school programs, such as the Wave Robotics club, which builds robots for state and national competitions, also go a long way to bring girls through the door of a STEM-based classroom, Mihalick said.
At FVTC, instructors have been bringing their students into area high schools to meet with teens for career exploration sessions. They also run a girls-only summer camp called Girl Tech, said Anne Haberkorn, dean of information technology, a corner of the technical college that has seen particularly high growth in female enrollment.
The number of women pursuing IT degrees at FVTC spiked 47 percent between the 2008-09 and 2010-11 school years, enrollment data shows. The key to recruiting girls has been breaking down stereotypes surrounding certain disciplines and showing girls a different side to science and technology.
“We (girls) view IT and other STEM fields differently. It’s not about gadgets for us but helping people and helping them accomplish their goals. That’s something girls and women seem to relate to,” Haberkorn said.
Newly emerging fields with heavy emphasis on design, such as mobile app development, also seem to appeal more to women. Women made up 42 percent of the students studying Web development and design at FVTC in 2011-12 compared to 21 percent four years earlier.
Kelsey Paltzer, 20, a junior chemistry major at UWO, said too many girls never give the sciences a chance because of a perception they need to be at the top of their class to participate.
“I feel like all too many females put themselves down. In high school, you think of chemistry as a hard subject or harder than the usual fields girls go into.. But, if you put effort into it, it’s actually very interesting,” Paltzer said.
Mihalick said a large part of her Women in Science program aims to make girls feel more comfortable with science regardless of their skill level. Those same efforts, she said, will also help all students.
“It’s been found that things professors can change in their classrooms to make women feel more comfortable, feel more valued and belonging, will also help everyone else in the classroom,” Mihalick said.