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Chelsea Clinton in DM: Girls need more encouragement in STEM

Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton’s parents always encourage her to speak her mind and to take action. So naturally, when she was 5 years old and had a beef with President Ronald Reagan over his plan to visit a Nazi cemetery in Germany, she wrote him a letter.

“I wrote: Dear Mr. President. I have seen ‘The Sound of Music.’ The Nazis don’t look like very nice people. Please don’t go to their cemetery. Sincerely, Chelsea Clinton.”

“I never heard back,” she told an audience at the Borlaug Dialogue at the Des Moines Marriott Downtown.

But she remembered the lesson that she should have an opinion, express it and pursue her interests.

Clinton, vice chairwoman of the Clinton Foundation, book author and an adjunct professor of health policy and management at Columbia University, gave the opening address at Wednesday’s World Food Prize afternoon session. She then joined a panel discussion on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) issues with former World Food Prize laureates Catherine Bertini and Robert T. Fraley, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and representatives of Google Inc. and Starbucks Corp. 

Clinton detailed some of the foundation’s work in Rwanda, Malawi and Tanzania, which includes empowering women while fighting hunger. In one Ghana program, female farmers grow and roast peanuts that are made into a protein snack that is served in schools, Clinton said. A food company committed to buying the products for at least a decade. “I think that’s remarkable because it is empowering the Ghanaian farmers to own more of their own economics,” Clinton said.

The United States is among the countries with severe hunger problems, even though the country grows enough food to feed everybody, Clinton said. “And yet we know that we have more work to do in this country,” she said. “We have to have a humility and an urgency about our own domestic food insecurity.

“I think it is unconscionable that in the wealthiest country on Earth, 14 percent of Americans are food insecure, one out of five children is food insecure, and one out of three African-American children is food insecure,” Clinton said.

She is working with a variety of nonprofits and corporate foundations on the Food Security Genome Project, which attempts to create a publicly available system that will lead people to every study ever completed by government, companies and nongovernment organizations regarding hunger in the United States.

“If we have a holistic data set of what has worked and what hasn’t worked, we will have better predictive analytics about the cost and possible impact of new hunger and food security efforts in the future so hopefully we can all make decisions more quickly about where to invest our research dollars or our programmatic dollars,” Clinton said. That should improve efficiency. The project should be done in less than two years.
The speakers acknowledged continued challenges in persuading girls to pursue careers in STEM fields. Clinton noted that in 1987, the year she got her first computer for Christmas (a Commodore), 37 percent of U.S. graduates in computer science were women. Now female graduates account for less than 20 percent. “Fewer and fewer women are participating. We have lost ground,” Clinton said.

Also troubling: Studies show that middle school teachers call on boys more than girls in tech classes, effectively tossing away girls’ early aspirations to become astronauts or computer engineers. “That is so tragic for all of us, because we are squandering that potential to address some of the challenges we’ve been discussing,” Clinton said. The answer is to be diligent in encouraging girls to pursue the careers, and the earlier in their lives, the better, she added.

Mary Wagner, global senior vice president at Starbucks, said hundreds of girls will go to one-day events from Starbucks in Seattle to Monsanto Co. in St. Louis to observe tech careers.

Michiel Bakker, director of global food services for Google, said the United States needs 137,000 computer science graduates a year to meet demand, and is getting 43,000. “That gap is growing,” Bakker said, and encouraging women to pursue that career would help.

Bakker said 1 percent of high school students move into a computer science major, a figure that is “staggeringly low.”

Part of the answer: encouraging girls, helping guide their self-perception, making sure they experience academic programs in STEM fields and working on the perception of those careers.

Robert  Fraley, Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer and a 2013 World Food Prize laureate, said: “So much of this is better curriculum and starting that scientific exposure at an early age. It’s that spark. It’s the encouragement and support system. We tend to discourage women from participating in STEM programs and we send those signals at a very early age.”

Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said the state’s STEM initiatives are helping: “One of the greatest benefits has been to bring business and industry and academia together.”

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