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Women in STEM event inspires future female scientists and engineers

As a science teacher, I am always searching for ways to raise awareness for women in STEM fields. Females make up less than 25 percent of the STEM workforce yet women in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts.

I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged an early interest in STEM and fueled that interest by bringing me to museums, zoos, and aquariums. My father is in the Navy and always taught us about the technologies and science behind his career. My mother was my Girl Scout leader for 13 years, which allowed even more exposure to STEM through camps, activities, and overnight trips. I was always told I could do anything I set my mind to with no limits on what I could achieve.

Unfortunately, some young women do not have this support at home or in their community. I knew that I wanted to give my students the same opportunities and encouragement I was given by my parents.

I run an after-school club for young ladies called WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) at Apex Friendship High School where I teach in the Academy of Engineering. We have designed t-shirts with bleach, built solar powered cars, and traveled to STEM events such as the US2020 STEM Day in the RTP.

These activities have been wonderful for getting female students excited about the wonders of science and math, but I also believe it is important to introduce young women to women who work in STEM fields. That’s how the idea evolved for the first “Women in STEM” event at Apex Friendship on April 28. The goal was to give young women the opportunity to network, learn what paths local STEM professionals took to start their careers, and feel inspired to someday pursue a STEM career of their own.

When I started organizing the event, I thought my largest obstacle would be securing enough STEM professionals to attend. I found the opposite to be true. We had a tremendous amount of support from local companies and universities. More than 35 professionals from Triangle area companies and universities attended the gathering, including representatives from N.C. State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, and Wake Technical Community College.

“Hearing such powerful life stories and lessons from such powerful women was incredibly motivating and reassuring,” said Kami Beardsley, who is a rising junior. “The knowledge, experience, and connections I was able to gain from this event are all wonderful opportunities that more girls my age should have.”

We invited professionals who were in different stages of their careers, from graduate students to directors. I felt it was important for the students to meet a variety of women during multiple phases in their careers so they could see how you can continue to grow and learn as a professional. The STEM professionals along with 45 students, including members of WISE Club and the Academy of Engineering, gathered in the Media Center at Apex Friendship where the students heard a keynote address from Dr. Colleen Countryman, who is a teaching assistant professor of physics at NC State. Her address was followed by a panel discussion of five women.

Panelists spoke about how they got into their careers, what college courses they took, and offered advice for the students on how to pursue a STEM career. A networking reception followed the formal portion of the program, allowing the professionals and the students to talk one-on-one.

“As a young woman looking to enter fields within STEM, it was eye-opening to listen to these women share their experiences, challenges, and triumphs as they built their STEM careers,” said Jessica Reid, a rising junior. “It was interesting to see the varying backgrounds of the different women, as some had been a part of STEM since they were children and others entered their field as an adult.”

The Apex Friendship Parent Teacher Student Association, Academy of Engineering Hospitality Committee, Apex Friendship Baptist Church, and the Wake County Commission for Women all provided items to make the event happen. The students are already excited for next year’s event. Word has spread around the school, and we may need to find a larger venue. We only had freshman and sophomore students this year so I know the event will continue to grow as our school does.

I could not have organized such a wonderful event without the support of my school, parents, and community.  The support I received shows me that there is a need and want to provide young ladies with the opportunity to explore STEM careers and interact with women in STEM.

Nancy Cattrell

Nancy Cattrell is a 2015-16 Kenan Fellow who teaches science in the Academy of Engineering at Apex Friendship High School in the Wake County Public School System. She has taught Biotechnology and Project Lead The Way at the middle school level, prior to teaching high school. She graduated from N.C. State University with a Bachelor of Science in Business Management and a minor in Animal Science in 2008, and earned a Master of Education in Science Education in 2012 from East Carolina University.