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Leading the Way: A Conversation with Carol Heaverlo

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By Peggy Layne and Liz Litzler

Dr. Carol Heaverlo, 2012 WEPAN Conference Chair, recently spent some time with us sharing her thoughts on outreach programs, what is needed for transformative change in STEM, advice for young women, and the upcoming WEPAN 2012 Conference. She tells us, "We are making small steps forward, although perhaps not as quickly as we would like. However, it is clear that after all this time there is no one solution that is going to solve all the issues related to underrepresentation in STEM."

An Introduction

Dr. Carol Heaverlo is currently the Outreach Program Coordinator for Iowa State University's Program for Women in Science and Engineering (ISU PWSE), and has been for the past six years. In this position she coordinates programs that engage and encourage K-14 students to explore and pursue Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) degrees. Heaverlo began with a background in biology and taught environmental education early in her career. Even back then, when she wasn't fully aware of the issues surrounding the underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM, she told us that she always encouraged students to explore opportunities, including non-traditional careers because "it just seemed like the right thing to do." She believes that students should be able to explore areas they are interested in sans the cultural and societal barriers that exist. Dr. Heaverlo also worked as a director of extension education in the state of Iowa, and is encouraged by the programs and organizations like 4-H and Girl Scouts that have begun to emphasize STEM programming.

An Evolution of Experiences

Like many of us, Carol Heaverlo can't describe a single moment in her life that prompted her to become an advocate for women in STEM fields. An evolution of experiences impacted her work and advocacy. Early in her career, Heaverlo worked in a department where she was the only female scientist, and at times felt very isolated, so she understands and empathizes with the issue of isolation for women pursuing and persisting in STEM degree programs. Positive experiences were also part of Carol's evolution as an advocate. Seeing the fruits of her labor reinforced the positive impact of what she was doing. Dr. Heaverlo described how a student in one of her outdoor environmental education camps contacted her 20 years later to tell her how the camp experience influenced her education and career choice: the former student is now the primate specialist at the Denver, Colorado zoo. Students who come back and recount how participation in a career conference influenced their education choices are part of the many small ways that the work we do on a daily basis is making a difference.

Making an Impact

Similarly, Dr. Heaverlo describes her work through Iowa State University's Program for Women in Science and Engineering (PWSE) as one of her most satisfying contributions to women in STEM. The PWSE program has two signature outreach programs. One is "Taking the Road Less Traveled," a career conference for 6 - 12th grade girls. The students spend all day on campus meeting with women from business and industry as well as academe, getting exposure to new career opportunities, and participating in hands-on STEM activities. The conference is now in its 25th year, and has impacted nearly 65,000 students. It has grown from one to six conferences each year which are hosted on the campus of Iowa State University. All the conferences fill up before the registration deadline, reiterating they are addressing a statewide need. The conference has come full circle: some students who attended a conference early on and then pursued a degree in STEM are now coming back to participate in the conferences as presenters.

The other notable PWSE outreach program is a student role model program that hires and trains undergraduate women who are pursuing a degree in STEM at Iowa State to go into K-14 classrooms across the state and conduct hands-on STEM activities. In addition to facilitating the experiential activities, the undergraduate women serve as role models in the classroom. In addition, the PWSE role models work with 4H Youth Groups, Girl Scouts, and others. These two outreach programs address important needs of the Iowa State community.

The Path to the PhD

Carol always knew at some level she would get a PhD, but wasn't sure where or in what field, since she began her career in biology. After beginning to work with the PWSE program, Heaverlo developed an interest in policy, specifically how decisions are made that result in education policies. It was a natural fit to pursue a PhD in educational leadership and policy studies. With her strong appetite for learning, and her experience with ISU PWSE, Heaverlo's PhD gave her the opportunity to delve deeper into STEM research. Her dissertation focused on STEM development (interest and confidence) in 6th - 12th grade girls, and it enabled her to enhance her skills as a researcher in an area in which she is passionately interested. Dr. Heaverlo finished her PhD in May 2011 - starting and finishing in an amazing 3 ½ years while working full time!

What is Needed for Transformative Change

There are at least three things that Heaverlo believes are needed to facilitate transformative change in STEM.   First, she thinks that most people working in the field will agree that appropriate funding for these programs is needed. This is the base upon which the rest is built. Second, she believes that "inoculating" the STEM curriculum at all education levels will help build students' interest and confidence, and make them impervious to negative messages. Specifically, "we need to begin introducing STEM early on in the educational pathway. If we wait until late junior high or high school, students have already decided what they're interested in, good at, and what directions they do or do not want to pursue. By the age of 3, children are already beginning to identify or relate with gender stereotypes... so we need to introduce STEM concepts early on. When they are taught early on, girls understand that it's acceptable for them to be doing that as they progress forward on their academic journey."

Lastly, Dr. Heaverlo believes that teacher training plays a key role in transforming STEM. She suggests implementing a required course for all pre-service teachers so that they understand strategies to engage ALL students in all courses. "Teachers often do not realize the influence that they have on a student's trajectory. Based on something they say, perhaps unintentionally, [teachers] can influence a student's confidence and certainly their interest in a specific area." In addition, Heaverlo believes that outreach programs and curriculum need to be intentionally developed to address the engagement of and impact on diverse audiences. This approach would prevent having to retroactively try and "fix" current programs to attract underrepresented populations as an afterthought. "It needs to be part of what we do at the very onset of development," says Heaverlo.

Advice for Young Women

Dr. Heaverlo believes it is critical for young women to find mentors and role models, and surround themselves with positive peer influences, whether they are at the K-16 level, within business or industry, or through professional organizations and conferences. All of these connections help alleviate feelings of isolation. Technology can also help - Skype or webinars allow us to connect across the country so a person is able to connect on a broader scale. The ISU PWSE program helps students develop the confidence and skills to reach out to potential mentors. Once one becomes comfortable or established in one's field, Dr. Heaverlo also believes that it is important to reach out and serve as a mentor to others. Research indicates that there are not enough female role models for students pursuing STEM degrees.

WEPAN Conference and Volunteering

When Dr. Heaverlo started her job at PWSE, she got involved in WEPAN because her colleagues were involved and encouraged her to participate. At first she just went to conferences and connected with other people who do outreach. Heaverlo says "I love the research that's being done! There are some amazing people involved in WEPAN." She became more involved with the WEPAN organization, and this year is serving as the 2012 WEPAN Conference  Chair. The theme of the conference is "Getting to the Heart of it All: Connecting Gender Research, WIE Programs, Faculty & Corporate Partners." The conference is designed to bring three communities together: women in engineering programs, ADVANCE programs, and gender research (like that done through NSF GSE). Unfortunately, it is too easy to get caught up in one's academic silo, so the goal of the conference is to bring these groups together and talk about current and potential synergy between and among them. Heaverlo reports that planning is going well, with a great group of diverse thinkers bringing different perspectives and experiences to the table to pull the program together.

Heaverlo observed, "One of the most significant opportunities that being conference chair has presented is working with a group of amazing people from across the country who come together to build this conference. Everyone is busy and stretched thin, so the fact that these people are willing to give time to build the conference is extraordinary. It has truly been an honor working with them." She is very familiar with folks involved in STEM education and outreach across the state of Iowa, but this role has enabled her to get to know people at the national level. She emphasized that "volunteering creates a huge opportunity to meet people who are passionate about STEM issues and collaborate on projects like the WEPAN conference."

But There are Still Challenges...

Dr. Heaverlo agrees that things have improved over the past 25 years and there have been some definite strides forward, however, she says progress is slow. Women's participation in many areas is still well below parity and Carol sees tremendous opportunity on which to build. Numerous programs have evolved across the nation, we have learned a great deal through the significant amount of research that has been done, and more resources are available to STEM advocates. Heaverlo mentions The WEPAN Knowledge Center  as an example of this, providing a unique repository for STEM resources. While we (collectively) are making a difference moving forward, Heaverlo believes that there is no one solution that is going to solve all the issues related to underrepresentation in STEM. The underrepresentation of diverse communities of women in STEM is a complex, nested system with challenges and opportunities at many different levels. That is why she is excited to put her efforts towards a multidisciplinary approach with the upcoming WEPAN conference - and she hopes you are, too!

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