Girls Sample STEM at Duke University

5/24 Pratt School of Engineering

Hands-on workshops and chats with role models drew more than 140 future female scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians to Girls STEM Day

four girls sit around a table with pieces of a robot between them
Girls Sample STEM at Duke University

If measured in terms of sheer excitement, the second annual Girls STEM Day at Duke, hosted by Triangle Women in STEM (TriWiSTEM) in collaboration with Duke University, was a runaway success.

Over 140 middle and high school girls from across North Carolina converged on May 18 at the Fitzpatrick Center in Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, where they enthusiastically explored robotics and artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and chemistry through hands-on workshops led by TriWiSTEM mentors and volunteers representing 43 companies and institutions from across the Triangle region. At the end of the day, students and parents were brought together for a fun competitive game focused on financial literacy, “So You Want To Be A Millionaire,” facilitated by volunteers from Fidelity, Credit Suisse and Coastal Credit Union.

Workshops were developed to highlight the “fun factor” of STEM. The Robotics and Artificial Intelligence workshop, for example, challenged participants to build their own robots using Lego’s Mindstorm EV3 kits, animate them using the free EV3 programmer app on laptops, and remotely steer their bots to perform tasks and compete in games.

“It’s fun and cool to learn about robots—how they work and how to make them do different tasks,” said Kennedy Rouse, an eighth-grader at Raleigh’s East Millbrook Middle School, who lights up for all things electronic. Delia Rouse, a Girl Scout troop leader and Kennedy’s mother, said that bringing her daughter to events like Girls STEM Day is a hands-on way to develop her love of science and technology. As an extra perk, Scouts can earn badges for their work.

Triangle Women in STEM volunteers led aspiring geneticists to learn about biotechnology and the scientific method in the DNA Biotech FUN-damentals workshop, where participants isolated and extracted DNA from wheat germ and grew cells. In the Science of Cosmetics workshop, participants explored the science behind the glitz and glamor of the cosmetics industry. The young future chemists mixed ingredients and chose flavors and colors to create their own brand of lotion and lip balms, and then marketed the products to their team members.

An older volunteer helps three girls with an experiment involving vials and safety equipmentWomen make up 47 percent of the overall workforce but only 28 percent of scientists and engineers, and interest in STEM subjects seems to wane for girls as they move from elementary to middle and high school. The organizers of Girls STEM Day–themselves professional women working in STEM fields–are determined to not just stop the trend, but to reverse it by sparking enthusiasm with real-life applications of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  

“We want to motivate the girls and create memories with the annual Girls STEM Day,” said Nan Jokerst, associate dean of strategic initiatives for Duke Engineering and co-lead for TriWiSTEM. “The participants will be able to see a giant community that fosters a sense of belonging and is more than willing to mentor them.”

In addition to young women, the event engaged more than 110 of their parents, who attended panel discussions on raising confident girls (and supportive boys), creating supportive environments, developing fluency in college admissions processes, and choosing STEM majors and careers.

“Corporate America long ago recognized that diversity in the workplace is a strategic advantage,” said parent attendee and software engineer Stephen Bohlayer. “Yet we still see too few people from underrepresented groups in software engineering and most STEM-related fields.” He said he is committed to keeping both of his daughters engaged in STEM-related activities, and this event for one appeared to be a hit. “I like science and want to learn more about biology and DNA,” said Anabel Bohlayer, a seventh-grader at Franklin Academy in Wake Forest who wants to be a marine biologist when she grows up.

From the event’s agenda, two strong messages emerged: that STEM is well within the reach of girls, and that they are not alone in their pursuits.

“When girls are exposed to STEM, they see that as an opportunity,” concurred volunteer Monika Gulledge, a public health analyst at RTI International. She comes from a STEM-oriented family, and her biologist mother was her role model. By volunteering, Gulledge hopes to pass the baton to a new generation of STEM women.

Event lead organizer, Sondra Rivers-Kobler, retired Director of the Global Markets Technology Division for Credit Suisse, sees Girls STEM Day as a way engaging and inspiring the next generation of young women in STEM, as well as a means of building a community that supports professional women in STEM throughout the region. It is not just a “feel good” event for students, she said, but a way to provide them with role models and hands-on STEM experiences that could lead the students to pursuing advanced STEM education, and lucrative and rewarding careers in the future.

A large group of women pose in front of Duke Engineering's Hudson HallA recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that the median annual income for STEM graduates at $76,000 is about $20,000 more than non-STEM graduates. Moreover, STEM graduates see employment rates of nearly 98 percent.

“We want the girls to be aware that they will generally make more money as STEM graduates than non-STEM graduates,” emphasized Jokerst.

The event was made possible through collaborative partners and sponsors that included Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering and Trinity College of the Arts and Sciences, Girl Scouts NC Coastal Pines, Fidelity, Credit Suisse, Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network (a partnership among Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State), Delta Dental, Coastal Credit Union, Red Hat, IBM, Biogen, Mills Auto Group and The Pearl Leadership Institute.

The event was presented by Triangle Women in STEM, an organization comprising professional women from Triangle education, business, non-profit and government organizations who work together to make the Triangle the destination for women in STEM.