When Associate Professor Azida Walker suggested buying the red chair, she did so without the intention of it sitting at an employee’s desk, gracing an office ready to welcome visitors or even awaiting a student’s arrival for class at the University of Central Arkansas.
Recycled from plastic soda bottles, this chair serves a much greater purpose.
“We take it to events just to bring awareness and bring the discussion to the table about the gender gap and equal opportunities,” said Walker. “The red chair has been a symbol for supporting women in STEM.”
STEM is science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Careers in STEM fields range from genetics and biostatistics to photogrammetry and hydrology. Men traditionally dominate STEM fields.
A 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce states, “Although women fill close to half of all the jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs.”
As a woman in STEM, Walker thought it was important that her college, the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (CNSM), purchase the red chair in support of the “Sit with Me” movement. The initiative was created by the National Center for Women & Information Technology to bring light to the gender gap.
At UCA, the red chair travels from one event to another, sitting on a stage or at the front of the room as a symbol of women having a seat at the table.
Walker used the chair to create a T-shirt design for a student group she mentors. The shirts feature the chair and the words, “Sometimes you have to sit to take a stand.”
She and other University STEM women are focused on supporting STEM education initiatives for all students at UCA, many of which have a focus on women and girls.
Several of them helped to organize the Day of Celebration of Women in STEM event in March 2017, which brought girls from local high schools to campus to celebrate “4000 Years of Women In Science.” Girls also had the opportunity to network and hear from successful women in STEM.
The University’s commitment to bolstering female engagement in STEM areas is reflected across campus with many other activities and initiatives
“It’s a passion of our faculty, so I don’t think you can attribute it to one person,” said Dr. Ginny Adams, associate dean of CNSM. “It’s all the [CNSM] departments, and it’s all the faculty.”
A few examples include UCA Lecturer Karen Thessing, who works with female computer science students to host science nights at local schools in Faulker County. She and the students take programmable drones and robots to the events to encourage interest and participation.
CNSM departments participate in science nights at local schools and community centers. Students and professors also participate in community events such as the STEAM fair that was held in March at Reynolds Performance Hall on the campus. STEAM is science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
Associate Professor Debra Burris planned a Women in Physics Day, and she is a regular speaker at career days, outreach programs and STEM events. One such event is the Girls of Power in STEM event, in which she has been a speaker for four of the five years the event has been hosted at UCA.
Girl Power in STEM (GPS) is a one-day event in April that allows eighth grade girls to gain hands-on experience and learn about STEM careers from successful Arkansas women.
“All the data in Arkansas specifically show that eighth grade is the pivot point,” said Adams. “So, you have these girls who…love science. They love the hands-on stuff. Something happens around the eighth grade point.
“Whether its peer pressure, whether it’s not cool to be smart, whether it’s boys won’t like them if they’re smart, the underlying reasons are unclear but something happens then.”
Adams got the support of CNSM and UCA alumnae Jan Davis ’88 and Nan Snow ’57 to create the event in 2012. The event is hosted on UCA’s campus and modeled after the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas’s Girls of Promise event held annually in Little Rock.
Adams said the event has grown to serve about 350 girls from “every socioeconomic strata” and dozens of school districts across the state. The goal for the day is outreach and mentoring, showing the attendees the opportunities for women in STEM.
“Their worlds aren’t as big as what is out there,” Adams said. “If nothing else that day, if their world expands just a little bit, just an understanding of what all there is and all the different possibilities, then we’ve done something big there.”
Missy Clifton ’95 is encouraged by the focused, University-wide efforts for women in STEM that exist now. As a woman in STEM herself, she appreciates the importance of a support system.
Clifton came to UCA in the 90s as a biology major.
“I actually did surgery on my baby dolls when I was little, and my mom was worried about me for a while there because I was actually cutting up my baby dolls,” Clifton said. “But I’ve always wanted to do something in the medical field.”
It was also her mother who pushed her to achieve any goals she set. Clifton said her mother would often tell her to make a plan and “work the plan.”
Using her mother’s advice, Clifton set her plan on becoming a doctor. She revealed this commitment to her career goals during the Honors College admission interview.
During the interview, Dr. Norb Schedler, then dean of the Honors College, told Clifton that only about one in five students who plan to attend medical school actually make it.
“And I said, ‘Well, you can count me as the one because I will do that,'” Clifton recalled saying to Schedler, who became of one her greatest teachers and mentors.
Clifton earned her bachelor’s as a summa cum laude graduate with a minor in Interdisciplinary Studies from the Honors College in 1995. True to her word, Clifton finished first in her 1999 class at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Today, she is a board-certified dermatologist, becoming the first female dermatologist in northwest Arkansas. She later founded Premier Dermatology in Bentonville in 2004.
Clifton also mentors students in northwest Arkansas, many of whom are young women who are also interested in becoming a doctor. “That’s always been my goal to continue to encourage people like I was encouraged throughout my life,” she said.
Having strong mentors and teachers is important in nearly every facet of life, but for women hoping to pursue a career in STEM, it is imperative.
“I had a wonderful teacher. That’s why I went into chemistry,” said Dr. Uma Garimella, director of the UCA STEM Institute.
The UCA STEM Institute has two main goals. One is to create or support STEM initiatives for girls. Garimella said the Institute hosts several events each year called, “Targeted STEM Leadership for Girls,” and they also support other CNSM activities such as the GPS event each year.
The other goal for the STEM Institute is to provide resources and support to teachers in STEM areas by helping with content knowledge and pedagogy. The Institute provides professional development training throughout the year by bringing teachers to the University campus, but they also visit classrooms to provide curriculum support.
“If you can empower teachers, you can help the student,” Garimella said.
Little Rock native Maryah Hart hopes to become the kind of teacher who empowers students, just like the teachers she had growing up, but she also recognizes her role as a woman in STEM.
Hart is a senior education major with a minor in mathematics.
“I look forward to the day where women and men in STEM can be equal. That will be the day where I have made a difference in the community as a teacher and a proud woman in STEM.” For now, she simply takes a seat in the red chair.