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STEM summer academy aims to change the game for West Virginia girls

stem girls academy group shot

In late July, a group of high school girls gathered in Montgomery for WVU Tech’s second STEM Summer Academy for Girls. The goal? Explore STEM fields and meet some of the women shaping these fields in the Mountain State.

The program offers students a weeklong immersion in STEM experimentation, career exploration and interactions with STEM professionals. It also provides students with a true college experience. They live on campus, attend college-level courses and maintain the schedule of a typical college student.

The Academy marked a nearly 50% growth attendance over last’s year launch of the program, bringing in more than 30 girls from as far as the Eastern Panhandle. The majority of the students were freshman and sophomores, and thanks to funding from Toyota Motor Manufacturing, West Virginia, each student was able to attend this year’s Academy at no cost.

“A lot of these girls are low-income or first-generation college students. ASEE data shows that many of the girls going into STEM fields have a parent or mentor from a STEM background. Most of these girls do not have that influence, so it’s important for women like us to meet with them and help them explore their options,” said Dr. Afrin Naz, assistant professor of computer science and information systems at WVU Tech and coordinator of the Academy.

Toyota sent a group of students from families employed by the company. Naz also worked with Toyota and an organization in Charleston to increase diversity among the group in a partnership that recruited African American students from the Charleston area to participate in the Academy.

The right kind of learning environment

“Research shows that offering girls a chance to learn in this type of all-female environment is very effective. The format allows us to target issues specific to girls and to address concerns that girls have in an environment where everyone feels comfortable,” said Naz.

students freezing balloon with co2

Ninth-grader Mikayla Toppins, 14, learned about the program from a counselor at Lincoln County High School. She said she found the idea of an all-girls camp appealing. She wants to be a physical therapist, but now she also has an interest in closing the gender gap in STEM fields.

“I thought being in a camp with all girls would be better because they focus on more on what matters to us. There aren’t as many girls in STEM. Girls also get paid less than guys do. By getting girls more into the workforce, maybe we can change this,” she said.

WVU Tech psychology student Jasmine Flanigan served as a counselor for the Academy. With counselor experience in both all-girls and co-ed camps, she said she sees the value in the Academy’s female-only format.

“It really does provide a different learning environment with less pressure. These girls are all here for the same reason. They want to be here and learn everything that every professor is offering to them,” she said.

Seeing the real thing

A major component of the Academy’s mission involves putting students face-to-face with women who are working in STEM fields. The Academy held a number of industry sessions, where representatives from companies and organizations shared their stories with students.

One of those professionals was Penny Potocki, an Engineering Specialist at Toyota. She studied electrical engineering and uses her education and training to keep operation lines and processes at the facility running safely and efficiently.

Potocki has been an engineer for 18 years and joined the company just over a year ago. Even so, she said Toyota is the first place she’s worked where she’s not the only female engineer.

“Nowadays, there is more and more encouragement for these young girls to go into STEM fields, so I find myself wanting to get involved in that to show them that we do exist out in the field, that we’re out here and that there are already people out there doing what these girls are interested in,” she said.

student causing mild chemical reaction to see results

The Dow Chemical Company in South Charleston sent a group of employees and interns to work with students on experiments in thermodynamics, fluid flow, chemical reactions, viscosity and physics. During another industry session, two female representatives from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association showcased some of the materials and products manufactured in West Virginia.

The group also used software to show the students the types of STEM careers they could pursue that would meets the needs of their proposed lifestyles.

“They asked them where they wanted to live, whether they wanted a house or apartment and what kind of car they want to drive,” said Naz. “Then they showed them the types of careers that would allow them to do that. They emphasized education throughout and showed the girls that they could find this type of jobs with the proper education.”

In Charleston, Academy students toured the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences and met with Robin Sizemore, Science Coordinator at the West Virginia Department of Education.

“She spent two hours interacting with the girls. She shared her life story starting at their age, and explained the struggles she had to go through balancing her education and career with family. She showed the girls that they can do anything they want,” said Naz.

For some students, the experience of connecting with professionals served as an affirmation for the career choices they already had in mind.

Anniah Jackson, of Charleston, wants to be a nurse. The 17 year old was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and undergoes regular treatments. She said these treatments have sparked an attraction to the medical field.

“I have to travel to Ohio every six weeks for treatment, but that’s better than scarfing down twelve pills every morning,” she said.

“I get to learn stuff there. I’m fascinated with the process and I always have millions of questions, but they’re always happy to answer them for me. That has inspired me to want to help others. I like being around people. I like helping people. I think that’s something I could do.”

During the week, Jackson was able to examine cheek cells under a microscope and meet with nursing professionals to ask questions about the field. She said these experiences helped solidify her desire to go into medicine.

Bringing it home

Naz said that learning about STEM fields and uncovering future career possibilities is more effective when students can articulate why they want to follow a certain path. To that end, she said the program is designed to incorporate the whole family. Students don’t simply absorb the lessons of the Academy – they have to share what they’ve learned throughout the week.

Students were asked to put together a presentation about what they were learning. Naz added new requirements and challenges to the presentation each day to keep students engaged and actively thinking about what they had experienced. At the end of the program, students shared their findings with their parents.

“Parents always have some input into the career decision,” said Naz. “Educating the parent, especially if the student is first-generation, is important because they play this important role in the paths their children take. Most people have no idea about some of the wonderful STEM jobs in West Virginia, so showing them that their children can follow their interests and make a good living helps in that decision making process.”

All told, Naz said she’s pleased with the outcome of this year’s Academy, and left the students with some parting advice:

“If you need help, there are females in these fields that are willing to help. You’re not alone. You need information about your future. Know and plan and be ready for the world. That’s the message we are looking for here,” she said.

Check out coverage of the Academy from the Register-Herald. View photos from the Academy on Flickr.