Jane Halloran doesn't hesitate when asked about her future career plans.
The South Elgin teen has been certain she'll go into environmental engineering ever since her introduction as a seventh-grader to Project Lead the Way, a national, hands-on curriculum aimed at preparing students for the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
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Now, she's among 88 freshmen from across Elgin Area School District U-46 enrolled at the district's highly selective Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology housed at Bartlett High School.
As a girl, however, Halloran is in the minority.
Of that gifted group of academy students, just 25 are female. And of the nearly 1,000 U-46 high school students enrolled last year in Project Lead the Way, only between 200 and 250 were female.
"We know it's not an equal representation, so we're trying to make sure we get more access and participation of females in STEM classes," said Marc Hans, district coordinator of math, science, planetarium and instructional technology.
U-46's figures reflect a national trend of girls lagging behind boys when it comes to interest and participation in STEM education. According to a report released earlier this year by STEMConnector, nearly 40 percent of high school boys express an interest in STEM education, compared to just 14.5 percent of girls. The gender gap, according to the report, is widening even as the number of jobs in science and engineering is expected to grow.
U-46 officials and school districts across the suburbs hope the persisting gender gap will shrink as initiatives targeting younger girls pay off.
Their efforts are necessary, they say, given the changing economy.
Projections from the U.S. Department of Labor show that by 2018, significant science or math training will be needed for nine out of the 10 fastest-growing jobs requiring a bachelor's degree.
Yet fewer girls than boys take Advanced Placement exams in STEM-related subjects such as calculus or chemistry, and the girls who do take those tests earn lower scores on average than boys, according to the 2010 report "Why So Few: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math."
"We need STEM education because we need to prepare our students for the workforce they will enter," said Andresse St. Rose, senior researcher with the American Association of University Women and co-author of the report. "These jobs fuel innovations, they fuel the economy and they are some of the better-paying jobs out there."
To help address the underrepresentation, U-46 for the past three years has partnered with the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity and received a Motorola Solutions Foundation grant for the purpose of engaging more female students in STEM coursework.
Teachers and administrators discussed the issue and the district held student focus groups to identify the causes, a key aspect of the grant.
One popular initiative to come out of that was a Saturday program for middle-school girls known as Moving Forward with STEM. During one outing last winter, students took a field trip to DeKalb and met with Latina women at the Northern Illinois University College of Engineering. Hans said 180 girls signed up for 75 spots.
The STEM academy's female students also run workshops for elementary school girls. Surveys afterward show a significant increase in the younger students' desire to take those types of classes.
"There's a huge interest from the students, and we need to make sure we can offer programming that is relevant to these young female students," Hans said. "That will build the pipeline."
Intervention as early as elementary school is key, research shows.
According to the National Science Foundation, a recent study of fourth-graders showed 66 percent of girls and 68 percent of boys reported liking science. But stereotypes start to turn girls off, and by eighth grade, boys are twice as interested in STEM careers as girls.
Three years ago, Palatine-Schaumburg Township High School District 211 started an annual GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Math and Science) conference for about 150 fifth- and sixth-grade girls in its elementary feeder districts.
They learn about a variety of STEM-related professions from successful women and perform hands-on activities such as 3-D computer software modeling and forensic scientist fingerprinting. Parents also attend to learn what they can do at home.
Since the first participants aren't yet in high school, it remains to be seen whether the conference will yield results. Last year, only 84 of the 631 students enrolled in Project Lead the Way across all five District 211 high schools were female.
"We know our girls are taking rigorous courses," Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Theresa Busch said, noting that 54.7 percent of AP exams in District 211 were taken by female students. "Enticing them into male-dominated engineering is something we're working on."
In Wheeling Township Elementary District 21, middle school students participate in 12-week exploratory technology classes each year to focus on STEM topics from robotics and civil engineering to TV broadcasting and graphic design.
Chief Information Officer Jason Klein said students focus on "authentic learning," or using their skills to solve real-world problems. Though District 21 doesn't target its programs specifically for girls versus boys, there have been discussions.
"We hope all the kids can see that the full range of opportunities is gender neutral," he said.
Many of those students go on to Wheeling High School, where the entire curriculum is focused on comprehensive STEM education. Students pick a career pathway as freshmen and build their coursework around it, Principal Angela Sisi said.
Because students get to choose, some areas are dominated by one gender. The certified nursing assistant program is almost entirely female, for example, while the manufacturing pathway is mostly male. Other programs such as business and marketing are split more evenly.
"It relies on what they're interested in," Sisi said. "We'd love for all our classes to be balanced, though."
Other top-ranked high schools including Barrington and Stevenson also report a pretty even split among boys and girls enrolled in STEM-related classes.
Steve Wood, Stevenson's director of science, said women represent half the faculty in the school's physics and chemistry departments and lead several science clubs.
"We have a very progressive community, one that doesn't see boys as scientists and girls as something else," Wood said. "We have families that get it: There's no reason a young woman can't be a scientist or an engineer."