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Girls in STEM: Summer academy program marks another year of career exploration

The 2017 girls academy class stands for a group photo with WVU Tech Campus President Carolyn Long.

On Friday, July 14, more than 20 high school girls from throughout the state gathered with their parents on WVU Tech’s campus for a picnic. The celebration capped the university’s weeklong STEM Summer Academy for Girls, where students spent their days conducting experiments, exploring STEM fields and meeting with women who have built successful careers in STEM industries.

While the picnic signaled the end of the program, it also gave students a chance to share their experience with their loved ones. Working in pairs, campers put together presentations about their experience and shared them with their families.

Chrae Hutchens, a 17-year-old student from Beckley, West Virginia, said the exercise was important because it allowed students to reflect on the camp and to share their updated visions for the future.

"We're showing them that we actually want to do something with our lives," she said.

Academy students learn how to take vital signs during the nursing session.

Hutchens wants to become a forensic investigator and eventually run her own business. She said she learned a lot about time management, budgeting, engineering, mathematics and chemistry during the program. Her favorite class was robotics, where she programmed a LEGO bot to run an obstacle course.

"I'm a very hands-on learner, so it was nice to learn about programming. You pretty much had to tell the robot to do everything step-by-step with exact measurements. It was pretty cool," she said.

In addition to courses in everything from nursing and biology to engineering and robotics, Academy students participated in an engineering-based shoe design competition, took a field trip to the Clay Center in Charleston, went ice skating and spent their free time getting to know one another.

Ashlyn Bell, a 14-year-old from Charleston, West Virginia, said the Academy atmosphere was a great place to meet new people and explore new ideas. She wants to be a nurse one day, and said that the camp experience has given her a good idea of what it will be like to go to college.

“Staying on campus was fun and taking courses like this is great. It shows girls that they can do more than they think,” she said. “We've all grown closer. Most of us don't go to the same school, but we're so much alike that we can bounce ideas of each other, which makes a better work environment for us.”

Exploring STEM alongside the experts

Dr. Afrin Naz, a WVU Tech professor and director of the Academy program, said that the camp has evolved since its founding just three years ago.  

“We are still learning and modifying from our experience. We are trying to reach sophomores and juniors at high schools because we found that is the best age at which to reach them. We’re focusing on diversity as only 11% of STEM employees are from African American, Asian and Hispanic groups. We made the industries more involved and we are assigning our Tech female students as their mentors,” she said.

Academy students learn about PLC programming during the industry session.

Naz said that putting campers in touch with STEM professionals and college students studying STEM fields has been one of the most powerful components of the program.

Nicole Chadderton, a WVU Tech biology major from Terra Alta, West Virginia, wants to go on to medical school and eventually become a pediatrician. She loves helping people, so being a counselor was a natural fit. It was also an opportunity to serve as a mentor to girls who might be interested in following her path.

“We help guide the girls and help them if they have any questions on any of the classes that they're taking. I was able to help them with identifying things with the microscopes in biology and taking vitals in the nursing class. It was exciting to see them discover things that they didn’t know they liked or were skilled at,” she said.

The camp was sponsored by Toyota, which provided financial support so that every student could attend the program free of charge. The company also provided an interactive engineering and programming demonstration.

One of the presenters, Shamaya Morris, is a production engineering specialist at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, West Virginia. The Beckley native was excited to be a part of something so close to home.

“The group that I'm a part of, the African American Collaborative, sponsors students to come here each year and do the program. There are a lot of opportunities that kids miss out on just because they don’t know they're available, so I think having this here and getting kids involved is a wonderful thing,” she said.

Morris works on the transmission side and is currently working on a special project for assembling eight-speed transmissions. Soon she’ll travel to Japan to test her designs. She said that this kind of hands on work is what motivates her in her career, and that she’s glad to help young girls find their own passion in STEM.

“A lot of times we think that engineering is something out of reach, or maybe we’re not good at it, so we won't even attempt to do it. Reaching out to kids at this age makes it real and shows students that these are real professions that they can grow up to have,” she said.

Dale Henry, an assistant manager in the engineering department at Toyota, was also on hand to help students explore the science behind engine manufacturing. For him, the day’s activities were deeply personal. His own daughter was in the 2017 class. She wants to go into a STEM field and often spends time with her dad working on vehicles and learning about how machines work.

“It's important for her to not feel intimidated by these activities. A lot of these fields are dominated by males, but they're not fields these young women should shy away from if they have an interest. She's as capable as anybody when it comes to problem solving, and I think it's important to show these students that these are fields for them,” he said.

For Naz, that measure of confidence is exactly what she wants on each student’s mind as they wrap up the experience and prepare to go back to school in the fall.

“Each camper should know that as a girl she is not inferior to any boy. She can be anything she wants to be. We want them to remember the power of networking. We want them to remember that together we are strong,” she said. 

Find out more about the Academy at camps.wvutech.edu, and check out photos from this year’s program on Flickr