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Academy returns to showcase girl power in STEM

Girls Academy students

Last week marked the end of summer camp season at WVU Tech as the STEM Summer Academy for Girls wrapped up on Friday. The five-day program brings in high school girls from throughout the region to explore careers and concepts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Two dozen attendees spent their days in sessions covering everything from civil and mechanical engineering to computer science and the chemistry of cosmetics. They visited the Bechtel Family Summit Reserve to take a canopy tour, learned about wetland ecology and explored a sustainable treehouse.

Maya Cummings is a 15 year-old sophomore from Charleston, West Virginia. Her favorite part of the experience was exploring the wetland boardwalk at the Summit.

"I just loved studying insects and finding animals in the creek. I've always loved that kind of stuff," she said.

Girls at the Summit.

Students also learned about the science and engineering that goes into something as ubiquitous as shoes. The girls designed and built shoes using only common household materials like construction paper and glue. Then they put their designs to the test on a makeshift runway.

Academy students didn’t stay on campus the entire week. The group travelled to Buffalo, West Virginia on Tuesday to visit a Toyota manufacturing facility. The visitors first spent half an hour chatting with Leah Curry, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, West Virginia. The group then toured the plant and joined a panel session with the company’s executive leadership.

For 17 year-old Dereyon Brown of Charleston, West Virginia, the Toyota visit was unforgettable.

"It was a good experience. Not a lot of people get the opportunity to even go and do something like that," she said.

Brown says she has always wanted to be a nurse, but the experience put engineering on her radar.

"If I want to go into engineering, I could,” she said. “It's important to let girls know that they can do anything and that women have a lot of opportunities in engineering, or anything that you want to do. In life, people say you can't do something, but at the end of the day, you just do it and you prove them wrong.”

Girls Academy students

Kimmy Johnson is a ninth-grader from Roanoke, Virginia. She wants to be a mechanical engineer when she grows up, so she found the Toyota visit very compelling.

"Getting to see how everything inside the car is made was really interesting. Typically when I think of cars, I think of men, but there were so many women. I was expecting to have maybe two or three women in there talking to us, but it was way more," she said.

Dr. Afrin Naz, who organized the Academy, said that she has implemented some changes over the years.

“The most significant improvement this year was demonstrating to the girls the importance of soft skills. The counselors communicated with them about the role of soft skills and, at the end of Academy, there was a competition on communication, presentation, team work skills, discipline, ethics and professionalism,” she said.

Tray Coleman came to the wrap-up picnic from Charleston, West Virginia. His niece Ivy attended the camp and gave a presentation on the experience alongside her group. Coleman said he was pleased to hear about how much the girls had learned.

"It was really eye-opening to her. It's showing her that there's a lot more than what she sees in front of her that she can pursue. The sky's not the limit. She can go beyond that,” he said.

Riding that tide of positive feedback from the campers, Naz shared that the program’s support for its students will continue well beyond the camp.

Girls Academy students

“The girls and their parents were introduced to EMPOWERS, a society offering support to women in STEM disciplines. Within the framework of EMPOWERS, we are attempting to provide continuous financial and mentoring support to our participants after the Academy,” she said.

The STEM Summer Academy for Girls was made possible with financial support from Toyota. This year, the company committed $20,000 to help fund the project.

Loreta Mascioli, Director of Corporate Giving at the West Virginia University Foundation, said that the partnership between WVU and Toyota highlights the state’s drive to encourage students to study STEM fields.

“In West Virginia, as we move towards a more diverse economy, business and industry recognize the need to support programs such as the Girls Academy,” she said.

“The partnership is special because it is a perfect match for the company and their leaderships’ commitment to education and the community. It speaks to the passion and dedication of the Tech faculty whose efforts have made this Academy truly exceptional and successful,” she added.

Check out photos from this year’s academy on Flickr.