In 2014, a study conducted by Alverno College reported that a majority of 4th grade boys and girls in Wisconsin obtained similar test scores in science on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination exam (WKCE). Both groups exhibited proficiency in science, suggesting that boys and girls have similar scientific achievements throughout their early school years. However, this similarity changes by 8th to 10th grade, when a higher number of boys test at an advanced level in science whereas most girls do not. As girls move on from elementary school, their attitudes towards science may change throughout the middle school years and early high school years. With 43.4% of boys testing at an advanced level and only 36.1% to 36.3% of girls testing between proficient and advanced levels in science, there seems to be a decline in girls’ test scores as they continue on with their education.
Although there have been several studies examining why an interest in STEM-related topics sees a decline in girls as they get older, there seems to be no solid solution. Despite not having a conclusive answer as to why a girl’s attitude towards science changes, there is one plausible explanation that seems to shed light on this issue. Attitude shifts may be caused by decreasing self-confidence in girls’ scientific skills as they get older. Boys seem to believe that they can become great at something with practice, whereas girls believe they should give up once they fail. This decreasing self-confidence can possibly be attributed to the societal expectation that boys are more likely to succeed in a STEM related career than girls. Studies examining stereotype threat, or the idea that one’s actions might be judged on the basis of a negative stereotype (e.g. girls are inherently bad at math), support this idea [1,2].
STEM careers are dominated mostly by males, and to combat this, some organizations have made an effort to provide STEM-related opportunities to women and girls. Currently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded many programs to provide access to STEM related opportunities and maintain retention of women in STEM.
Further studies have shown that although opportunities for women in a science related field are crucial, another step in recruiting and retaining women in STEM starts with engaging girls in science from a young age [3, 4]. Encouraging girls at a younger age not only sparks interest, creativity, and problem solving skills, but girls are also more likely to take AP science courses in high school which can prepare them for pursuing a science related degree. One way to immerse girls in the field of science is to create programs that encourage their participation.
The Alverno Girl’s Academy
The Alverno Girl’s Academy of Science and Mathematics is a program hosted every Friday at the Alverno college campus with the goal of encouraging young women to view science as a part of their everyday lives. Many of the students who attend the after-school program are first generation minority students with an interest in mathematics and science. The program not only strives to spark an interest in science, but is also designed to expose the students to STEM related topics such as chemistry, biology, mathematics and food science. One unique approach connecting the topics and aimed at engaging the students is a focus on “beauty.” Participants work on science projects throughout the school year that involve this theme. For example, students in the chemistry coursework work to create a recipe for hand lotion.
They do this by experimenting with chemicals that are used to create an effective moisturizer. In the math course, students work on projects such as using the golden ratio  to compare the symmetry of the face, and then study how symmetrical faces are perceived as more attractive. In the biology course, students participate in multiple interactive labs involving the physiology of the human body. This includes projects on measuring blood pressure, and investigating the structure of skin to understand how the process of aging mediates skin changes. These three science courses are open to students in their Junior year of high school, while students in their Senior year of high school participate in the food science course. In the food science course, students learn the science and chemistry behind making cheese, ice cream, cakes, and chocolate. All projects are group based and students must work together to problem solve.
Not only do the academy students gain experience working with scientific concepts, they also get the opportunity to see what it is like to be a college student, and it shows them that higher education is an achievable goal. Student teaching assistants that work in the classroom and are Alverno students serving as role models for the girls. They show the girls that a woman pursuing a STEM degree can and will be successful. The student teaching assistants also act as support for the girls and as a resource for any questions the girls may have about college.
Justin LaManna, a professor of biology at Alverno college, and Dina Borysenko, currently a professor at Milwaukee Area Technical College, started the Alverno Girl’s Academy of Math and Science in 2011 with a group of 25 students from various schools around the Milwaukee area.
Since then, the program has grown to host over 350 high school students who are either in their junior or senior year. Dr. LaManna designed the program to encourage discovery-based learning and a more holistic approach at looking at science instead of the traditional hypothesis based approach. A more holistic and discovery-based science is used to get a bigger picture of the whole issue instead of looking at only one part of an issue.
Last year in April of 2017, the Alverno Girl’s Academy of Math and Science won the Wisconsin Campus Compact’s (WiCC) Esther Letven Community-Campus Partnership Award. This award is awarded to colleges and universities that are committed to engaging with the community through student growth and learning.
In addition to encouraging girls of high school age, the program has also recently expanded to holding workshops at various Milwaukee Public middle schools. Each workshop is designed like the program for high school students to encourage young girls to continue with a career in science.
The Girl’s Academy was also invited to participate in Discovery World’s 2017 Girl’s & STEM event, where participants were able to use engineering skills to build a “picnic racer.” The project encouraged girls to work with their hands and problem solve by building a “picnic racer” using different sized paper cups, paper plates, washers and pencils.
The Alverno Girl’s Academy of Science and Mathematics is an amazing program dedicated to a holistic and discovery-based science approach that is geared towards young women. The program’s goal is to spark an interest in STEM, with the hopes that these girls will continue their lives with a curiosity and appreciation for the sciences. The program also hopes to encourage more girls to enter the STEM field. Currently, the program is succeeding and will continue to inspire and encourage girls around the Milwaukee area.
For more about the Girl’s Academy of Science and Mathematics visit their facebook website:
Written by Elizabeth Gamillo for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates
 Shapiro JR, Williams AM (2012) The Role of Stereotype Threats in Undermining Girls’ and Women’s Performance and Interest in STEM Fields. Sex Roles 66:175–183 Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-0051-0.
 Spencer SJ, Steele CM, Quinn DM (1999) Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance. J Exp Soc Psychol 35:4–28 Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103198913737.
 Smith KA, Arlotta P, Watt FM, Group TI on W in S and EW, Solomon SL (2015) Seven Actionable Strategies for Advancing Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Cell Stem Cell 16:221–224 Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4476252/.
 Dasgupta N, Stout JG (2014) Girls and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: STEMing the Tide and Broadening Participation in STEM Careers. Policy Insights from Behav Brain Sci 1:21–29 Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/2372732214549471.
 Prokopakis EP, Vlastos IM, Picavet VA, Nolst Trenite G, Thomas R, Cingi C, Hellings PW (2013) The Golden Ratio in Facial Symmetry. Rhinology 51(1):18-21 Available at: https://doi.org/10.4193/Rhino12.111