Catholic Schools Nurture Girls in STEM

Pictured: Jesuit biology teacher Dr. Lara Shamieh explains the structural anatomy of a sheep heart to students Kara Skokan and Katya Rott.

By Katie Scott of the Catholic Sentinel

A 6-year-old Lara Shamieh was at the Oregon coast with her family when she discovered a dead shark washed up on the beach. It was rotting and smelled foul, but the little girl rushed up to investigate. "I was so excited because I wanted to see what was inside," said Shamieh, now 40. Shamieh grabbed a piece of drift wood and used it as her first-ever dissection instrument, carefully probing and studying the cartilaginous fish.

Rather than drag their daughter away from the smelly specimen, her parents told her, "We are going to sit right over there, and you tell us what you find," recalled Shamieh, laughing that "they bathed me well that night."

She sees that day at the beach as a defining moment, an impetus for a fulfilling career in biology. Shamieh would go on to be a college professor and publish scientific papers; she currently teaches biology at Jesuit High School in Southwest Portland.

Nurturing children's natural curiosity about the world, as her parents did, is an important part of closing the gender gap that remains in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, said Shamieh. In K-12 education, the disparity between male and female student achievement has nearly closed, but women still earn far fewer STEM degrees and are underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce.

In many ways, Catholic schools such as Jesuit are uniquely suited to the task of engaging girls in STEM long term. Not only can they heighten students' appreciation of the disciplines by incorporating faith, but they also provide strong female role models, supportive communities and creative curriculums that help girls feel confident and excited about tackling STEM.

Patricia Morrell, president of the Association for Science Teacher Education and director of the , said it's crucial that more females embrace the disciplines traditionally dominated by men. Not only do they offer different perspectives and solutions but "without women, we aren't going to fill the slots, and we are missing out on the brains of half the population," she said. "Education is going in the right direction," Morrell added, "but we need to keep at it." Continue reading on