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Anna G. Larson, Published April 21 2013

Sparking interest: Program promotes STEM careers for women

FARGO - Eighth-grader Darlene Richter was curious about the sparks she saw when her dad was welding at home.

Richter, of Beulah, N.D., tried welding the first time this year through GUESS Again, a day focused on nontraditional careers for women, such as welding. GUESS Again is part of the Girls Understanding and Exploring Stem Stuff Program sponsored by the North Dakota State College of Science. STEM careers include science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“I like hands-on science-y things,” Richter says. “It was a good experience to open my eyes to different work fields.”

Inspiring girls to seek science-based careers is the goal of the GUESS Program, says Carrie Leopold, the outreach coordinator for NDSCS.

The program brings in eighth- and ninth-grade girls from schools across North Dakota.

“It’s about telling these young ladies that they can do whatever it is that they want to do,” Leopold says. “Not every girl knows that she can be a doctor or a welder or an engineer. We’re trying to instill in them the confidence and make them feel empowered, like they have a voice.”

Women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, and less than 6 percent of jobs in welding, soldering and brazing, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Leopold leads the career day with Lee Larson, an assistant professor of welding technology at NDSCS. Larson’s 25 years of experience in the field gives him a different perspective on women entering the profession.

“I pull back just a little bit because I know my industry as being, at times, very tough and gritty,” he says. “There are a lot of things that I don’t like with the male-dominated aspect. In the same sense that we’re pumping these girls up, I still have a little bit of, ‘I really want you to, but this is going to be tough.’”

Larson says he and Leopold balance each other out when they’re teaching together. Leopold calls Larson “too real” at times, and he says she’s too idealistic. The duo comes together to teach and encourage girls to go after whatever career they want, but to also realize there might be hurdles.

Larson explains that in the welding field, women typically have a more difficult time fitting in than men.

“You’ve got all the weeds in this row to pluck. The guy sitting next to you has very few. He’s going get a job; he’s going to fit right in,” he says. “We have to change our industry immensely.”

Male-dominated industries won’t change until more women occupy positions in those fields, Leopold says.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. You’ve got to get those women in there before you’re going to see a change, but it’s also a tough situation,” she says.

Betty Homme, an NDSCS student who helped with the welding day, worked in construction for 12 years before starting school to learn welding. Homme is in her element as she guides the girls through their welding lesson, keeping a watchful eye on her male classmates to make sure they don’t put hot metal near the girls.

“I think women are more detail-oriented than most males,” she says. “I also think we’re more dependable and tend to raise morale.”

Homme wanted to learn welding to explore her creativity while maintaining an active job. She calls welding a “healthy mix” of hands-on, physical work and artistry.

“We’re catering more to the artistic ability of each girl and we really want to strive to create interest in just the science part of it,” Homme says.

She’s helped with the program before and thinks that having a female welder among the male student instructors makes the learning day less intimidating.

“I would hope that we can get more girls involved in welding,” she says. “Companies and businesses in general are interested in having more female employees out on a working floor setting, especially since we tend to kind of raise morale.”

Abbey Schantz, of Beulah, came to the welding day to learn more about career options.

“I’d like to be a chiropractor, but this has kind of changed my mind,” she says. “I might want to work out in the field with metals and different things like that.”

Leopold and Larson say the GUESS Again career days are always high energy and exciting.

“I don’t think coming into it, these girls knew how much impact it would have,” Leopold says. “Even if they’re not going to become a welder, they can tell their friends. I think something changes inside. They learn that they can pursue career goals with passion and have passion to move up as far as they want to go.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525.