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How the Gatton Academy Is Helping Female Students Thrive in STEM

by Katie Schuknecht
female student in STEM sitting next to computers

You’ve probably heard of the STEM acronym before, whether it was in school or news about the job market. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Schools have recognized the importance of introducing these topics to students when they’re young. Therefore, they have started to provide opportunities for students to explore each field. STEM programs might include a math club, robotics program, or coding challenges. 

Young boys and girls are equally capable of mastering STEM topics. Nevertheless, it’s probably not surprising to hear that one gender is much more heavily involved in those fields. In the K-12 grades, male and female students generally show equal performance on math and science standardized tests. However, when students move on to higher education, something begins to shift. 

On average, women are earning 57% of bachelor’s degrees. However, women only hold 18% of computer science degrees, 20% of engineering degrees, and 39% of physical science degrees.  In the workforce, women make up only 28% of all those employed in a science or engineering field. The difference is even greater when you look at minority women.

Something’s gotta give. 

The Start of a Solution

Nestled on a hill in the middle of downtown Bowling Green, Kentucky, is the state’s third-largest university, Western Kentucky University. The 20,000 students attending this college refer to themselves as Hilltoppers, and the school mascot is a giant red blob— whose name is Big Red. Halfway up the hill, you’ll find a building that’s home to the youngest students on the campus: 16- and 17-year-old students enrolled at the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science.

NonGirly spoke with two of the Gatton Academy staff members: Dr. Lynette Breedlove—the director—and Elise Swift-Taylor—the assistant director of admissions and public relations. They shared how the focus of the academy is on providing opportunities for high school students to study STEM subjects in a university setting. To do so, the academy is giving young women a community of support in these male-dominated fields. 

The Gatton Academy: An Overview

The Gatton Academy was established in 2007. It is a statewide public residential program for high school students who are embedded into Western Kentucky University. This program enables students to do all of their academics of their last two years of high school at the university—alongside other university students. Essentially, students are juniors or seniors in high school and simultaneously freshmen or sophomores at the university. 

The academy requires students to take a course load with a heavy focus on science, technology, engineering, and math. Beyond their classes, they have the chance to engage in faculty-led research and even study abroad. Students live and learn on the college campus. As a result, these students can rely on a community of like-minded peers and a team of support staff.

Admission into the academy is by invitation only, and there is an emphasis on diversity. In other words, the academy welcomes students from all over the state and all types of socioeconomic backgrounds to apply. Also, every year, the incoming class of around 100 students splits into half male and half female. 

Supporting Female Students in Male-Dominated Fields

In classes and career fields where the majority of those present are men, women can quickly begin to feel a sense of imposter syndrome—like they don’t belong or aren’t worthy. Unlike other academic settings, the Gatton Academy doesn’t let that happen to their female students. 

Because the academy students are younger than their typical college student counterparts, they are grouped together in classes. This gives female students the chance to be around other young women who have similar academic interests career-wise. They’re able to explore these topics among same-age peers who have similar interests. This experience enables female students to gain confidence before they go on to their traditional college experience. The Gatton Academy even has funding specifically for young women to provide extended research opportunities.

The Gatton Academy has a small staff-to-student ratio, with almost twenty staff members available to support the 200 enrolled students. The entire focus of the staff team is supporting students, while university faculty provide academic instruction. Two staff members are licensed professional counselors who are dedicated to Gatton students. Residential counselors live in the female wings, just as an RA lives in a college dorm. They serve as mentors and role models. 

At the Gatton Academy, they place a heavy emphasis on providing personal support to each student. According to Lynette, the academy is full of internal support and, “because the academy’s focus is on the individual student, that certainly benefits female students.” Thanks to this design, every student can feel acknowledged, encouraged, and engaged in university life.

After the Academy

When the Gatton Academy students graduate high school, they’re halfway finished earning their college credits. A small percentage choose to stay at WKU, and about half remain in the state. The most exciting statistic? 80% of Gatton students end up majoring in a STEM or STEM-related field. Students have gone on to become engineers, software designers, and even work for NASA. Other career choices have included lawyers, math and science teachers, and doctors. 

Words of Advice

Elise and Lynette have had the opportunity to watch hundreds of students complete the Gatton Academy program. Through their experiences, they’ve seen what it takes for women to thrive in STEM areas. They recommend that young female STEM students surround themselves with a community of peers and remember that anything worth pursuing is usually challenging.

Elise advises incoming students, “Focus on what you are wanting to do in your studies, but have an open mind to other things. I’ve met a lot of students that come in and surely their main focus is just on medical or engineering, and some of the opportunities of Gatton have introduced them to so many other different avenues that they didn’t know about. That open-mindedness is crucial. In short, students need to have that understanding that they might change their mind and that’s okay.” Meanwhile, Lynette offered this advice: “We define ourselves. We get to decide who we are, what we want to be, and how we figure out who that is.”

The Gatton Academy is one of just a handful of similar programs in the US. The emphasis on assertiveness, education, variety, diversity, and inclusivity definitely gets a stamp of approval from NonGirly!

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