SALT LAKE CITY — Figuring out how to synthesize new materials for medical devices is how University of Utah biomedical engineering student Thelina Smith spends her days in a lab.
Smith is a senior and within one year, she will graduate with a master's degree and eventually receive a doctorate in the biomedical engineering field. She said she couldn't have made it this far without the encouragement she received early on from her seventh grade science teacher.
"She just saw something in me that would flourish and so she always told me ‘Go for science, go for math,'" Smith said. "Back then I didn't know I'd end up in biomedical engineering but I'm just so glad that I stuck with it and listened to her as a mentor."
Smith is also Miss Black Utah 2013 and that is the message she plans to present at the national Miss Black USA competition in Washington, D.C. in August.
"Engineering is not easy but it's definitely doable," Smith said. "With the right mentors and tutoring, you can do anything."
That enthusiasm helps guide 19.2 percent of Utah college women into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) studies — compared to 31.2 percent nationally, according to a June 2013 Utah Women and Education Initiative study.
Study authors found Utah culture and unintentional negative messages aimed at women contribute to the low percentage of Utah college women enrolled in STEM education.
"Young Utah girls see their lives as silos. They went to school and they were done. They get married and have kids. They don't see the integration," said study author, Cheryl Hanewicz, Associate Professor and the Department Chair in the Technology Management program, Utah Valley University. "It's perfectly acceptable to have a child, take some time, and take an online class. You don't always have to do it the traditional way."
The study also reported that typically boys outperform girls in math and science proficiency. Researchers said incorrect assumptions and beliefs maintain that boys are better at math and better suited for scientific work.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress for Proficiency in Utah (NAEP), Utah males outperformed females, with the largest gender gap showing up in eighth grade science.
The report also stated girls typically receive less encouragement to pursue STEM education and once they enter the classroom in those course, they have fewer role models. Researchers also said the attitudes young girls have about themselves also contribute to the lack of enthusiasm among girls to pursue STEM education.
"They (girls) think they don't have what it takes. They don't have a growth mindset. They think they need to be born with the capabilities of handling math," said study co-author Susan Thackery, Utah Women and Education Initiative. "And the truth of the matter is everyone with the right resources can learn and excel in any area."
Study editor Mary Ann Holladay says female STEM students need more mentors, especially women already working in STEM fields.
"Form some relationships. Let them know that they're going to get through that engineering class," Holladay said. "Men can also be powerful mentors."
"My younger girls talk about being the only girl in a classroom in which nobody is looking at her (to participate), including the teacher," Hanewicz said.
She says teachers can help mentor female STEM students, especially as many are pioneers in the fields.
Researchers predict STEM-related jobs in Utah will reach over 100,000 by the year 2018. The report stated that women hold nearly 50 percent of all jobs nationally but only less than 25 percent in STEM fields, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Thackery said more women will need to fill those STEM jobs and education in these fields will better qualify them for careers in the STEM fields.
"Our young women are leaving early and having their children and starting their families but they do end up in the workforce," Thackery said.
The study found 62 percent of Utah women work for pay compared to 60 percent nationally. And 59 percent of those women in the workforce have preschool-aged children and 74 percent have school-aged children.
"And we might also add that Utah has a slightly higher rate of divorce than the national average," Thackery said. "So therein lies the picture."
Utah Women and Education Initiative encourages young women to start college and finish their studies.
"My dream is that women will realize they can pursue and succeed in these (STEM) fields," Holladay said. "And when they do they're going to be stars."