Education is changing rapidly because of technology. Those of us with school-aged children, or who work in education, are in a constant race to keep up with not only the IT that’s handed to us, but the innovations brought to the table (or desk) by our students.

We do this to not only cater to the changing tech environment, but to ensure that our children are at the forefront of designing and implementing an IT revolution of their own to improve our lives. As a result, STEM programs have become a vital part of education. Despite the continued focus on STEM and technology related careers, “…women earn 57% of Bachelor’s degrees in the United States, (but) only 12% are awarded computer science degrees,” according to Code.org.

MaryJeanSchmittGiven the rate at which women earn Bachelor’s degrees and how few are working in STEM fields, the GovDataDownload editorial staff reached out to Mary Jean Schmitt (MJ) for her insight on how to increase the participation of girls and women in STEM fields. MJ is a Federal Business Development Manager at NetApp. In her free time she advocates for STEM in schools and the importance of encouraging girls and young women to pursue careers in STEM related fields.

Continue reading below to learn more about what MJ had to say about and the importance of getting young women involved in technology:

GovDataDownload (GDD): STEM is gaining importance in the American education system. How have changes in technology and an increased focus on IT impacted the need for students to have exposure to STEM to enable their competitiveness in the global market?

Mary Jean Schmitt (MJ): STEM is a great brand being utilized across our education system, but the proof in its effectiveness will be in our ability to entice more young people to pursue technical and technology-related careers. I can’t say definitively whether technology changes and focus on IT are the best reasons for students to look toward STEM to remain competitive. In many ways, technology is almost table stakes for students these days.

However, a recent Gallup study with Google, “Searching for Computer Science: Access and Barriers in U.S. K-12 Education,” discusses the lack of computer science courses in grades K-12. Many schools teach computer literacy, but that is often limited to learning to use a word processor, write spreadsheets, and other basic skills. The study and corresponding literature cited quantitative reasons why parents and educators agree that this is an important addition for school curriculum: five of the fastest growing occupations are computing related, by 2016 there will be 1.5 million computing related jobs, and computing related jobs are among the highest entry level salaries with a Bachelor’s degree.

Additionally, high schools and universities use a multitude of cloud services, and educational institutions of all levels are wired and active on social media. Today’s students use these services without thinking twice about it.

We need to go the next step and ensure that our students realize that they could do more within these fields – as users, as knowledgeable practitioners, as IT innovators, and so on. This will enable them to be not only personally competitive but will also enable Americans to remain competitive collectively.

Computer science and STEM related courses teach a great deal more than just coding languages. They teach logical decision making, as well as how science and technology can be applied in any number of fields. Our mobile devices and the apps we use every day are proof of this convergence of a great (non-technical) idea and technology.

GDD: Given STEM’s importance to remaining competitive in the global market, how important is access to STEM education for female and minority students?

MJ: Access is paramount, and support systems behind the access to the technology are also very important.

Along those lines, it’s exciting to see programs- like Girls Who Code– that are definitely reaching young women. Only time can tell whether it will expand to include young women who are not already pre-disposed to a technology-specific career.

For example, a young lady in our neighborhood participated in Girls Who Code, and returned from the program, feeling compelled to start a Girls Who Code group during her senior year of high school; this is an example of how these programs can be scaled to produce tangible results.

Yet another example are the NetApp sponsored day long STEM workshops for young women at both the Research Triangle Park and Sunnyvale campuses. During these workshops, spearheaded by NetApp’s Women in Technology group, young women take part in tutorials on STEM related topics, get introduced to women in tech careers at NetApp and work on projects where they demonstrate newly learned coding as well as other technical skills. I haven’t taken part in one of these yet, but I look forward to the opportunity to do so in the future.

GDD: What do you think is the best course of action to make young women and school aged girls aware of the possible career tracks they could pursue in STEM? How important is this awareness to the American economy?

MJ: Start early and don’t give up. It seems that there is a lot of outreach at the grade school and middle school levels, but by the time girls get to high school, they have already made up their minds that they are “not good” in Math and Science.

A strategic approach would be to tie math and science to other areas – like design, art, theatre or fashion design – that might engage girls who otherwise might not see why math is so important. Cynthia Stoddard, our Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, for example, tells the story of making patterns and dresses for her daughters, and how much math is involved in that process! Through this approach Cynthia is able to communicate that “math is cool” but also diverse in its applications.

Or, consider another example of initiatives that might resonate with girls in middle and high school today – like supermodel Karlie Kloss’ experience in learning to code. Through her experience in learning to code, Kloss emphasizes for young girls that like fashion design, dance or theatre, coding is “a form of self-expression.”

Kloss goes on to share that “(I)t’s crucial that young women learn to code as soon as possible…to ensure that we as young women have a voice and a stake in what the world looks like.” In that light, it is important for middle and high school aged girls to have exposure to role models like Stoddard as well as Kloss, so that they can see the diversity in women in technical fields and its many applications.

Lastly, the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is another “prime time” example that champions women in technical careers. This conference has great visibility across tech and non-tech firms and provides college age students with an opportunity to network and learn from a wide peer support group as well as professional mentors. NetApp and a long list of corporations sponsor this annual conference. This year’s conference features Megan Smith, the U.S. CTO, as well as NetApp’s own Denise Cox, Senior VP of Enterprise Services.

GDD: Given your career in STEM and long-time advocacy of STEM education, what is the single piece of advice you would like to impart to young women seeking a career in a STEM field?

MJ: Try it. Don’t think that a STEM career means that you are a rocket scientist, even though you might be. But, it is easy for me to say this because I really like math and technical topics.

For example, I loved Language Arts and Math when I was in high school and college and ended up combining the two during my college studies and eventual career path.

Don’t shy away if there are more men than women in classes or career paths. Reach out for support from female teachers and senior figures both inside and outside of school and the office. Women in technology have comprised a pretty strong support system with a great deal of momentum.

Also, it is very important for young women (and men) to consider a broad view of technology related careers. In that vein, I like the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) acronym a great deal because just because you study Math, Science, and Engineering, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or couldn’t be a great writer or love art or be an actor. There are lots of careers that were unheard of when I graduated from college that are now classified as technology careers.

Ultimately, young women shouldn’t limit themselves or feel that STEM pegs them for particular careers, like programmer or researcher. STEM fields today are everything from technical sales to developing new ways, like apps, to execute completely non-technical processes.

Times are changing and how we focus our energy on education in the IT field should as well.

To learn more about the importance of technology and current advancements in IT, click here.