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Faculty endowment supports females in STEM fields

By Hayli Morrison

Faculty endowments have a positive effect beyond just the faculty members who receive them. In Chardie Baird’s case, a donor-funded endowment fuels life-changing academic experiences for dozens of teenage girls each year.

As the Spainhour Family Chair for Women in Engineering and Science, Baird is an associate professor of sociology who also oversees outreach to middle school or high school girls interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Every summer, the girls visit campus to learn about these fields through the K-State Office for the Advancement of Women in Science and Engineering (KAWSE), where Baird serves as executive director. She often witnesses the girls’ uncertainty with hands-on scientific learning through the office’s GROW and EXCITE programs.

“You see them fear speaking up in class and sharing their ideas, being afraid that they don’t understand the ideas,” Baird said. “They just don’t have the confidence, but when I read their papers, they’re smart, thoughtful and capable and they don’t know it.”

That self-confidence prevalent in elementary school can falter in middle school and well into adulthood, Baird says. Much of her research focuses on this phenomenon as well as gender inequalities in the home and workplace. 

“Women dramatically underestimate their abilities in math and science,” Baird said. “I’ve found that, over time, if they receive feedback that they can do it, they will move into those disciplines. So the question is, ‘How do we make sure we are providing girls with accurate feedback about their abilities?’”

It’s why the KAWSE office continues to support females during their academic and professional careers at K-State through the SUCCEED and ADVANCE programs. Lectures, mentors, networking sessions and leadership opportunities present continual engagement with other successful females in STEM fields.

There has been a cultural shift in the workplace, Baird said, as more women rise in the ranks and more men recognize the valuable insights females can bring. But at a fundamental level, it all begins in childhood.

“We want to show them how good they really are,” Baird said. “That spark when they come back to life is truly amazing. It is hard to put into words how rewarding it is to see them trust themselves again.”

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