By Cliff Foster
Kathy Rigsby can still recall what the physics teacher said when she was a student at Littleton High School in less-enlightened times.
Rigsby was just one of two girls in the class. When it came time to study displacement, “I was told it was a good way to measure shortening for pie crusts, and as a housewife I would need to know that.”
Much has changed for science-savvy girls—to a point. On Nov. 28, the Equity Assistance Center based at the University will host the launch of the Colorado Collaborative for Girls in STEM, part of a national movement to bring together organizations that are committed to informing and encouraging girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“The problem is the underrepresentation, particularly of girls and students of color,” in STEM education, says Rigsby, director of the center. “I don’t think it’s deliberate. It’s far more subtle. It goes back to what’s going on even in elementary school that gives the message to the kids that this isn’t for them.”
Changing that message and improving access to STEM for all students is just one of the priorities of the center, one of 10 funded by the United States Department of Education under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It provides training and technical assistance on educational issues related to race, gender and national origin, as well as bullying and harassment prevention, to school districts, public schools and other institutions in Colorado and five other states.
Hosting an Equity Assistance Center is a competitive process. Every three years, the education department issues Request for Proposals to institutions that want to accommodate the program. The Region VIII center had been at Colorado State University and at the University of Colorado Boulder from 2008-2011.
“When the Request for Proposals was coming out, I approached Dr. Percy Morehouse, (MSU Denver director of equal opportunity and assistant to the president) … and asked ‘Do you want to go for it?’ And he said, ‘absolutely.’ '' The University received a three-year, $2 million-plus grant for the project.
The Center at the University is a lean operation—Rigsby, plus three other professional staff, an administrative assistant and a couple of student-workers. “Whenever we do go into a state we try to work with as many districts as possible,” she says. So in Fargo, N.D., recently she and a consultant put on a two-day workshop on bullying prevention and civil rights investigations to administrators of 26 school districts.
Sometimes training follows a disturbing incident. Last year a superintendent in Montana asked Rigsby and her staff to conduct staff development at an Indian reservation school because of a complaint lodged with the regional Office of Civil Rights in Seattle involving student-on-student racial and sexual harassment.
“We spent a considerable amount of time doing in-service with teachers and providing them information and strategies to start addressing what they are required by law to do,” Rigsby says. “The real concern is when schools know what’s going on and don’t act on it.”
Greater access to STEM is the new frontier in equity education.
“It’s also an economic issue. There are so many jobs in this state that are demanding people with good math, engineering and science skills that are going unfilled. The technology side of the house is going to be the driver of our economy and we need every good brain we can find,” she says.
And nurturing those brains is one aim of the Colorado Collaborative, which will promote and fund local projects to bring underrepresented students into STEM education.
Says Rigsby: “One of the things equity centers strive for is access for students, and this is exactly what the girls collaborative is working towards—access to the sciences, technology, engineering and math.”
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