Back when they were Broadalbin-Perth eighth-graders, Julie Capito, Madison Fagant and Emily Denman all took a new STEM-focused class.
They visited a “clean room” at Fulton-Montgomery Community College and toured the SUNY Polytechnic campus. Lessons covered renewable energy, wind turbines, robots, crime scene forensics — anything that might cultivate a student’s passion for the sciences. It worked.
“It sparked an interest for a lot of us,” said Denman, who will study engineering and management at Clarkson University in the fall.
Now set to graduate from high school later this week — all in the top 10 of their class no less — the three young women are headed even deeper into the world of science and engineering. Capito, first in the class, plans to study conservation biology at St. Lawrence University. Denman hopes to work for GE one day, and Fagant plans to study biotechnology with a pre-veterinary concentration at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.
In total, seven of Broadalbin’s top 10 graduates are female; five of the seven are pursuing majors in science, technology and math fields that have long be dominated by men.
Many programs today are designed to encourage girls — especially around middle-school age — to pursue STEM fields. The share of women earning those degrees in college and beyond changed little between 2004 and 2014, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
While science and engineering undergraduate degrees are about evenly split between men and women, specific degrees tilt heavily toward men. Over 80 percent of engineering degrees granted in 2014 went to men, for example; the disparity between men and women has actually grown slightly since 2004. More dramatic differences exist for computer science degrees.
The statistics don’t faze the Broadalbin students: This year’s statistics class, which Capito, Fagant and Denman took, was made up of nine girls and zero boys.
“Our honors classes always consisted of more girls than guys,” Fagant said. “There wasn’t really a class that was like: There are no girls in here, so I’m going to drop it.”
“We weren’t ever exposed to the disadvantage we had of going into the (STEM) field, so we never felt hindered,” Capito added.
“If you are passionate about it, you just do it,” Fagant said.
Since eighth grade, the trio — who have all been in Broadalbin schools since they started school — have peppered their schedules with as many STEM offerings as they could. Recently, the school started offering Advanced Placement Environmental Science, and a new class this year focused on the history and science of conservation in the Adirondacks.
Fagant worked as a lab assistant for a science class, leading dissections and helping develop test questions. All three have also earned nearly a full year's worth of college credits during their time at Broadalbin.
“We are definitely trending toward more females in STEM fields,” said Brian Henry, a Broadalbin science teacher. “These ladies provide evidence of that. They have excelled in everything they have done academically.”
As they chatted in Henry’s classroom, showing off a creepy, mangled doll they found during a field trip to Broadalbin’s abandoned landfill, the girls brainstormed ways to encourage other young girls to stick with science and math. Trips and field research left the strongest imprint on them, they said. And it takes time to sort through ever-changing interests: Capito said she is still not sure what type of conservation biologist she wants to be.
“I want to try everything before I decide,” she said. “I want to work in every kind of ecosystem there is and then pick one.”
Henry said bolstering interest in science was simple: “Start early.”
The teacher also took the chance to drop one last test score on some of his top students.
“Do you guys know what you got on the physics (Regents) test?” Henry asked Capito and Fagant.
“No,” they responded.
“I do,” he said, holding Capito’s score over her for a minute. “You got a 97.”
“I’m happy with a 97,” Capito said matter-of-factly. Fagant’s score in the mid-80s was also enough to count as “mastery.”
“They are completely motivated. They are focused, and they truly love the sciences,” Henry said.