PROGRESS program connects undergraduate women in STEM fields

Samantha Ye

For all the challenges women in sciences face, one program lets them know they are not alone.

PROGRESS, or Promoting Geoscience Research, Education and Success, is a program designed to mentor and connect undergraduate women in the STEM fields. Though it is oriented toward earth and environmental sciences, all science, technology, engineering and math majors are welcome.

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The program may officially become a part of Colorado State University and serve as a mentorship template for other STEM fields if the grants and partnership work out, said Emily Fischer, head of the program and professor of atmospheric science at CSU.

Currently, the program starts with a kickoff workshop composed of different panels from professional women in STEM. Speakers talk about their pathways into science, and there are discussions about networking and stereotyping.

The event is women-only, and anyone who identifies as a woman is welcome, Fischer said. Attendees come from CSU and other nearby universities.

group photo of PROGRESS attendees
PROGRESS, a program designed to support undergraduate women in STEM. The most recent workshop was held at Colorado State University on Feb. 9. (Photo courtesy of Illana Pollack)

“I think the most important thing that we’re doing is making women in STEM now more visible to younger women and showing them the struggles and the successes and the failures,” Fischer said. “It’s showing them a range of role models, of how careers progress and how women fill these roles.”

Because of a longstanding history of women being underrepresented in STEM, Fischer said, that can lead to the perception that the sciences are not a welcoming place for women. Bringing professionals and students in science together helps combat that sense.

Augusta Irechukwu, senior computer science major, said she left the event feeling enthusiastic and proud.

“It was like, ‘OK, this is doable. You can get your Ph.D. and be in a field that’s heavily dominated by men and you can still navigate that and succeed in that field,’” Irechukwu said.

Although not in the geosciences, Irechukwu said she learned about ways she could apply her computer science skills in related data analysis. She is currently applying to different research experiences for undergraduates and hopes she can get one in Antarctica, so she can code in the snow.

After the workshop, PROGRESS attendees can join the closed Facebook group to stay in touch with other participants. The group continues to host or support other STEM events and provide networking opportunities.

Students networking within their peer group is a big part of the program, Fischer said, particularly in physical sciences where a student might often be the only woman in her class.

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Hattie Dunton, general mathematics major, said the female underrepresentation has been difficult.

Last year, when she requested an excused absence letter from the head of her department so she could attend a math conference, the faculty member wrote all her pronouns as he/him/his, assuming she was a guy.

“That really sucked, and it was super embarrassing to give all my professors,” Dunton said.

In her almost-completely male classes, Dunton said she often has to “play ball” with the guys, while being with a program full of women was a really different experience.

“You just walk in like, ‘Yeah it kind of sucks when everyone assumes I’m a guy,’ and everyone in the room is like, ‘Ugh, me too!’” Dutton said. “So it was really nice just to know that anything that I face being alone in my classes as a woman, other people deal with too.”

I think the most important thing that we’re doing is making women in STEM now more visible to younger women and showing them the struggles and the successes and the failures. It’s showing them a range of role models, of how careers progress and how women fill these roles.” Emily Fischer, head of the PROGRESS program and atmospheric science professor.

Fischer said she is proud to provide that space for women to build lasting friendships. The program also connects students with female STEM professionals, or volunteer mentors, who range from working professionals in the field to graduate students.

Sarah Whipple, now a first-year master’s candidate in a graduate degree program in ecology, was in PROGRESS in 2015 and is now a mentor for the 2019 cohort.

Having various female mentors as outlets of support had been helpful through her studies, Whipple wrote in an email to The Collegian, and as such, she would like to give back with her own support.

“Impact-wise, I hope to be encouraging, positive, friendly and inspirational so that she feels comfortable continuing with a STEM career and also recognizes her personal leadership capabilities,” Whipple wrote.

PROGRESS allows mentoring relationships to develop naturally and informally, Fischer said.

Haley Dallas, senior natural resource management major, said she had a mentee partner, and together consulted with one mentor. 

“I absolutely loved getting to hear about her experience but also getting to offer advice I wish that I had had coming into CSU,” Dallas said.

They talked about everything from classes to interpersonal advice and overcoming sexism, Dallas said.

“It felt very like a family,” Dallas said.

So far, there have been three iterations of PROGRESS: one in 2015, 2016 and now the most recent one in February 2019 with around 150 students participating. Each workshop has adapted from the last to give access to more students and opportunities, Fischer said.  

PROGRESS has so far been funded by National Science Foundation grants. Fischer said she’s not sure when the next one will be since that is dependent on further funding.

As Fischer applies for the next NSF grant, she is hoping for CSU to adopt the program officially and institutionalize it within the University.

The NSF grant she has applied for would fund the program for two more cohorts within the next four years. CSU would then run it to serve students and to serve as a model for other regions to learn and develop similar programs of their own.

Fischer said she purposely developed the program for broad transferability, not just across institutions but across STEM fields. If institutionalized, she says they would try to apply to the program to the engineering college in CSU.

PROGRESS aligns well with the current suite of programming within the Walter Scott Jr. College of Engineering, wrote Melissa Burt, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion for the college, in an email to The Collegian. If it becomes part of CSU, Burt would like to broaden the scope to provide opportunities for students who have historically been under-represented in engineering disciplines.

Burt helped start PROGRESS at CSU as a way of bringing more women into the geosciences and creating ways to better support them throughout their careers.

“I’ve learned so much from the people who have encouraged, supported and guiding me through the geosciences, and PROGRESS was a great opportunity for me to give back,” Burt wrote.

From connecting women in STEM to addressing the gendered challenges of the field head-on, Fischer said PROGRESS provides an important network of support for undergraduate women—and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I have people come up to me after the workshops and they’re saying ‘Oh, I’ve been having such a rough year, and I really just needed this burst of inspiration and now I feel like I can keep going,’” Fischer said. “Everyone takes away something different away, so I’m proud I am able to make this space for undergraduate women and make it more successful for them.”

Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.