How University of Alberta program has helped thousands of women see themselves in STEM careers

While there have been efforts to increase female representation in STEM, the data show there’s still a lot more to be done. The likelihood of a girl enrolled in Grade 1 in Canada going on to receive a PhD in the sciences or engineering is one in 225. When you’re up against those odds, it can be easy to feel like you’ve lost before you’ve even begun.

Elementary school science experiments are fun, but the sense of delight can get lost in later grades. 

“If sparking interest were enough, we would have thousands of students applying to be in our post-secondary institutions. We would have gender parity,” said Fervone Goings, team lead for the University of Alberta’s Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science & Technology program.

WISEST has spent the past 40 years striving to convert a spark of interest into a lasting flame — and it’s working.

The data prove just how effective the program has been. A 2021 study looked at more than 30 years’ worth of statistics tracking the proportion of WISEST summer research program participants who went on to attend the U of A and enrol in STEM disciplines. The average was 84 per cent.

WISEST was recognized with the U of A’s Community Leader Award in 2020 for its contribution to bridging the university’s commitment to learning, discovery and citizenship with the wider community.

Showing students what’s possible

Nancy Manchak got involved with WISEST as a 2008 summer research program participant, and she hasn’t really left.

“WISEST is such a part of me,” she said. Manchak was one of that 84 per cent who went on to pursue a STEM degree at the U of A, joining the WISEST program committee while studying engineering in her undergraduate years. Now she works as an engineer and serves on the WISEST advisory board.

For Manchak, the experience she had as a high school student in the summer research program helped shape her career path.

“I discovered what engineering entailed and the potential path my career could take. It took a lot of the uncertainty and the scare factor away from applying for engineering as an undergrad,” Manchak said.

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