Secretary pushes importance of STEM for women in transportation

For the state Department of Transportation, teaching students the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines are a priority as the department continues to aim for diversity in its workforce.

Leslie S. Richards, secretary of the state Department of Transportation, was the featured speaker at Tuesday’s Lunch Member Connection, hosted by the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce. According to Richards, only 18 percent of PennDOT’s workforce are women and the department needs to move forward with teaching the importance of STEM jobs like engineering and computer sciences to a more diverse group of students.

“It is an agency that has traditionally and continues to be very male dominated and we want to make sure that the smart male brains continue to move us forward but we want to make sure that we invite some female brains as well,” Richards said. “We have to reach out to students starting in middle school and continuing in high school for minorities and for females to think of STEM fields and for them to understand that they might be interested in transportation.”

STEM jobs aren’t just a priority for PennDOT, Richards said. Gov. Tom Wolf also sees STEM as a priority in Pennsylvania schools and, according to Richards, the number of graduates from the state System of Higher Education in STEM and health majors has increased by 37 percent.

In order to continue to increase the number of students involved in STEM, PennDOT has teamed up with Simcoach Games, a computer firm, to create video games to help peak interest in transportation work.

“We have to teach our children early what it means to be an engineer, or a planner. They will consider those paths in the future when they are introduced to them early on,” Richards said. “We are getting students to play in the middle school years and it is introducing them to construction sites, what does it mean to mix cement, what does it mean to dig trenches, what does it mean to look at a plan and read engineering.”