Girls STEAM Ahead courts future leaders, innovators

The Homewood Science Center held its second annual Girls STEAM Ahead event on Saturday, Feb. 24, and it appears to be picking up steam. The event drew a bigger crowd of professional women and aspiring teens than the previous year.

According to HSC Executive Director Edie Dobrez, the program is a local contribution to solving a national problem: the underrepresentation of women in the sciences. 

About 200 teen girls had an opportunity to mingle with and learn from about 75 professional women in science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) fields, Dobrez said. About 130 teens attended the inaugural event last year.

The event is designed to show girls that STEAM career paths exist for them and to help them take the first steps, according to HSC board Vice President Aimee Matthys. 

"My hope for the STEAM event is connections," she said. "I want junior high and high school women to come and meet people in industry and learn about different opportunities they have. These girls are future STEAM leaders."

Jeff McClain, president of the HSC board of directors and director of operations at Schneider Electric's Homewood facility, said the mission of creating opportunities for women in STEM fields is important for his company and for the world. 

He said the company makes supporting STEAM education a priority.

"It's part of our social responsibilities," he said, adding that there is a practical side, too. "As an employer, an ideal outcome for me is that four or five years from now, one of these women might apply for a job" with Schneider Electric.

From a broader perspective, he said bringing underrepresented groups, including women, into STEAM fields is a matter of ensuring human progress.

"So much of the advancement that occurs in STEM fields is the result of unique ideas, something that's not been done before or not even thought before," he said, noting that if women are left out of STEAM careers, "we are missing ideas, input, passion from half the people on this planet. The rate at which technology advances, that's unacceptable."

McClain recalled President John F. Kennedy's famous challenge in 1961 to travel to the moon before the end of the decade, a goal that was met in 1969.

"I believe we could present a challenge to this room and five years from now we might have the answer," he said. 

Dobrez echoed McClain's view of how important it is to attract women to STEAM careers. 
"It's a social justice issue, but it's also an economic issue," she said. "These women are important for our future." Women need to become STEAM leaders in order for the U.S. to keep its leadership role in innovation and development.

The event began with a showcase of women professionals in STEAM fields, and this year it drew women not only from the H-F and surrounding communities but from further afield. 
One health care professional, Jennifer LeRose, came from Detroit. To illustrate her presentation on epidemiology and infection control, she had girls get some hands-on experience by donning the protective garb used by medical staff when working with  patients with infectious diseases.

A popular showcase table featured a poster "How to be a Rocket Scientist," where Meghan Ostermann, a propulsion engineer, talked about her job at SpaceX, the California-based private aerospace company that develops and launches rockets and space vehicles.

Among the local professionals was Dr. Lisa Grant, a Homewood orthodontist, who said she enjoyed telling her story to the girls who stopped by her table with questions about her work.

The keynote address "The Power of You," was presented by a mother-daughter duo. Patricia Messersmith is a founding member of the HSC board of directors and is a senior educator at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. 

Messersmith offered a message that inspired girls to pursue dreams of careers in STEAM fields.

Her daughter, Molly Van Kley, of MVK Photography, joined her on stage to help make the case for the interplay between entrepreneurship, technology and the arts.

HSC Marketing and Events Coordinator Holly Kelsven and Maggie Parniak of Schneider Electric, teamed up to talk about career exploration and the importance of smart goal setting. 

Trina Savisberg of Enbridge Energy in Schereville, Indiana, facilitated a panel discussion on the value of internships that included Maggie Colton, a Homewood-Flossmoor High School graduate and student researcher at the University of Chicago; Maddie Moxle, H-F senior with summer research experience at the California Institute of Technology; Amirah Muhammad, a recent H-F graduate and HSC intern and a participant in the Tuskegee University Mentoring into Engineering program; Jackie Clark, a senior manager with Accenture who has a chemical engineering background; and Kimberly Garrison-Clanton, manager of marketing communications and community relations for UChicago Medicine-Ingalls Memorial.

To keep the conversations and connections going after the event, HSC announced it would make available an online directory designed to help girls and mentors discover how they can help one another.

Note: The writer's spouse, Amy Crump, is a member of the Homewood Science Center board of directors.


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