Summer institute embraces girls' perspective in transportation education

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Girls watch a speaker during the first National Summer Transportation Institute in 2016 at Portland State University. The program approaches STEM education with a focus on girls' experiences.

The success of TREC’s first summer program for high-school girls shows promise for the future transportation workforce. The National Summer Transportation Institute, held July 11-22, gave 22 girls classroom and hands-on instruction with transportation experts in various fields and sectors.  

While high school girls and boys enroll in higher science and math classes at the same rate, fewer girls persist in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. That carries into the workforce, where women still hold a small percentage of transportation-related jobs. Fewer than a quarter of transportation supervisors, and under 14 percent of civil engineers are women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

A goal of the summer institute was involvement of underrepresented groups, and more than half the students identified themselves as girls of color. The institute sought to inspire the girls, already skilled in STEM subjects, to pursue transportation-related higher education and to connect them with role models in the workforce.

Through instruction from female transportation leaders, tours of workplaces, class projects and other activities, the girls gained insight into how transportation systems undergird their lives. Seeing how women have advanced innovation in Portland’s transportation system, and recognizing the skills that have helped these women achieve their goals, the girls learned the path they themselves can follow to become transportation leaders.

Comments from the students reflected how much the lessons resonated:
  • “I was interested in finding out about how income and race are associated with transportation, Instead of just learning it, I got to see it in person.”
  • “There are so many different types of jobs in transportation and city planning!”
  • “I was very surprised to see that this program was going to be about more than just transportation modes, and also included PEOPLE.”

The summer institute stood out not only for the quality of instruction but also the collaboration of an amazing number of the organizations affecting transportation in the Portland area. Instructors and participants represented public transportation agencies such as the Portland Bureau of Transportation, TriMet, the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Port of Portland; other city services including police and GIS; private firms Stacy and Witbeck, Cambridge Systematics and Kittelson & Associates; advocacy organizations, Better Block PDX, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon and WTS; and elected officials.

By embracing girls’ perspectives, the institute broke from other approaches, said Sarah Dougher, the institute’s program director for TREC. "Paying attention to the needs and ideas of girls is a new and transformative way to think about transportation,” she said.

“It is clear we have a long way to go in creating opportunities for girls across STEM disciplines and industries,” Dougher said. “But rather than insisting that these fields need girls, we need to keep asking why and how girls need these fields to create better communities for themselves, their friends and their families.

“Only girls know the answer to that."

More information is on the National Summer Transportation Institute page.

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