In today's digital world, more and more jobs require degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. But as demand has jumped, studies suggest that few women are pursuing those skills.
With that in mind, students at Xavier College Preparatory, a private high school for girls, held Girls Have I.T. Day on Friday, giving sixth-, seventh- and eight-grade girls from diocese schools a chance to learn about the fields through games, demonstrations and speakers.
"Girls are missing out," said Tammy Greasby, a Xavier graduate working on a doctorate in biostatistics at the University of California, Davis. "They're great and rewarding careers."
"What do you think of when you think of women in science, engineering, technology and math?" Greasby asked the crowd of about 300.
"Nerds!" the girls yelled, breaking into laughter.
Not Greasby's friends, she said, showing pictures of physicist, an environmental engineer, a computer scientist and a molecular biologist and noting that these women also run marathons, bake cupcakes and volunteer in developing countries.
"Women in science and math are not defined by their jobs," Greasby said.
The event was the brainchild of Frances McMahon Ward, a cinema and digital arts teacher at Xavier who wanted to show girls careers that they might not have considered.
"There's not really programs for that," she said. "I don't think they're closed off yet. They're introduced to something and say, "Wow, that's cool.'"
That was the reaction of Ally Abbott, an eighth-grader at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School in Phoenix.
"They have lives!" she said. "I thought the engineering sounded cool."
Catherine Wyman, program director of technology at Xavier, said sixth, seventh and eighth grades are right around the time girls start facing interests and social pressures that may push them away from science, technology, engineering and math, areas often referred to as STEM.
"I think a lot of girls get turned off from STEM at an early age," Wyman said.
That helps lead to women being underrepresented in those fields. In 2008, for example, only 11.8 percent of computer science bachelor's degrees awarded went to women, according to a survey by the Computing Research Association.
"It's the future of the world," said Sister Lynn Winsor, Xavier's vice principal. "The more you're going to get involved, the better."
After the speeches, Xavier students entertained their guests with informational booths and activities, including a flight simulator, a catapult and Math Twister, a STEM take on the game in which students had to solve math problems to before putting their hands and feet on colored circles.
Elecia Sieh, a Xavier senior who plans to study aerospace engineering in college, demonstrated robotics projects.
"It's important now to get younger people interested in science and technology because it's a really cool thing," she said. "I think that it's kicking up now since technology is around every single day."
Cedar Cody, a seventh-grader at St. Thomas, asked a lot of questions about the different robots.
"I think it's really interesting," she said. "We're all equal. We're all human beings. We're not geeky if we like them."