photo by Nicole Cohen
Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton talks with attendees at the Up & Atom Women’s Leadership Fundraising Initiative breakfast.
During an early breakfast this morning at the Science Museum of Virginia, more than 250 women (and a few men) gathered in the rotunda for the sixth annual Up & Atom Women’s Leadership Fundraising Initiative, benefiting the Science Museum of Virginia.
“Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, STEM, is woven into everyday life … the Science Museum is the heart of STEM learning in our lives,” Anne Marie Elles, co-chair for Up & Atom and head of the museum's foundation board, told attendees.
Anne Holton, the keynote speaker and Virginia Secretary of Education, noted that she's a frequenter of the museum and remembers bringing her own children when they were young. She shared the importance of STEM education and how the Science Museum helps support and inspire children in those fields.
“[The museum] is really sneaking knowledge and appreciation for science into fun,” Holton said, adding, “It is a serious message and a serious point. We have a real dearth of science knowledge in our citizenry even when we’ve passed our SOLs and done what we needed to do in school … there are so many things that are important for our communities to be successful, but we need to up our game in terms of people just understanding basic science principles." The Science Museum's programs promote learning in a way that children find entertaining, she added.
Holton said that she was excited that the event's participants were addressing the promotion of women in STEM education and related careers. “I looked up a statistic for the SCHEV, State Council of Higher Education [for Virginia] … I checked that the 2014 engineering classes in Virginia [were] 20 percent women." She paused as the audience applauded. "Yes, that’s an applause line, because it’s a whole lot better than it used to be, but it’s also still a huge gap. That means it’s 80 percent men and we’ve got a long ways to go, and this is just one indicator, but it is a telling one.”
Lauding the Science Museum in its efforts to support STEM education, Holton said that she has seen increased interest from women across the commonwealth in STEM-related careers. Two such women were in attendance. Janet Rafner, a University of Virginia student receiving a degree in quantum physics, shared some basic lessons with the breakfast attendees. She described concepts such as wave particle duality using video demonstrations. She spoke about her own knowledge of physics and how the museum has assisted and inspired her education. “The Science Museum was integral into my pursuit of art and science and communication,” Rafner said.
A younger pursuer of science is Parker Sale, a sixth-grader at Brookland Middle School in Henrico County. She shared her desire to be a meteorologist. “I’ve been obsessed with science for over a year now,” Sale said. She received her own weather station as a Christmas present and was able to further her knowledge of meteorology by checking out weather exhibits at the Science Museum. She says her two favorite meteorologists are Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel and NBC12’s Jim Duncan. “Maybe I just like the name Jim,” she joked. In a special surprise, Margaret Lewis, co-chair for Up & Atom and president of the board of trustees for the Science Museum, said Sale would be taken on a tour of NBC12 and meet Jim Duncan in addition to a tour of The Weather Channel, where she would get to see the tools meteorologists use.
In an interview after her talk, Holton said that in STEM scores, Virginia is “usually above average. We have some ups and downs, but overall we’re well above average.”
When looking at data on STEM scores from the National Center for Education Statistics, Virginia ranks on par to above the average U.S. scores. However, the United States as a whole ranks above the basic level, but below proficient in comparison with the rest of the world.
“It depends on which scores you look at,” Holton said. “I think the truth is that we do have a need to be more rigorous, and our Virginia standards have [become] more rigorous in math and science over the last few years.” Noting that the commonwealth is working to get students and teachers up to those standards, she said, “We need to be helping folks rise to the challenge of more analytical thinking," and encourage a more problem-solving approach.
Holton says that the commonwealth is allocating extra resources to some of the most economically challenged communities in regular K-12 funding, but also offering specialty programs mirroring initiatives such as Petersburg’s year-round school.
Given the focus of the group sponsoring today's event, it seemed natural to ask Holton about women in leadership, particularly now that there are two women who are seeking the presidential nomination in the Democratic and Republican parties. Holton, a former Virginia first lady and wife of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said she didn't want to comment on Hillary Clinton's run for president. However, “I am a big believer that we need more women in politics at every level, at state legislature, our U.S. Congress and absolutely at the presidential level.”