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Summer Academy Connects Girls to STEM Possibilities

In late June, more than 20 girls from throughout West Virginia and surrounding states visited WVU Tech’s Montgomery campus for the first-ever STEM Summer Academy for Girls.

The program immersed attendees in a week of STEM programming, including courses in biology, robotics, engineering, chemistry, computer science and pharmacology. Students participated in a variety of competitions and heard from guest speakers, including WVU Tech President Carolyn Long and Robin Anglin-Sizemore, science coordinator at the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Secondary Learning.

Fourteen-year-old Piper Martin is going into the ninth grade at Charleston’s George Washington High School, but she already has her eye on college. She attended the Academy to explore new fields and get a feel for what life in college is like.

“Usually in school you get sort of a brief introduction to careers, but I like learning more in depth about all the careers, especially in biology, because that’s where I want to go,” she said. “Knowing that it’s really sterile in a lab and that you have to be careful when you’re doing experiments is helpful. It gives me a picture of what I’ll be doing.”

Designed from the start as a means of demonstrating the application of STEM fields to everyday life, the Academy took a unique approach to helping students process the program’s educational offerings.

For instance, attendees participated in a competition where they worked with a budget to purchase materials like cardstock, glue and tape to build a pair of shoes. Students had to consider engineering design elements to account for pressures and weight distribution in the shoes, and had to test their designs on a 20-foot runway.

Students also participated in a weeklong project where they were asked to give a PowerPoint presentation on what they learned during the Academy. Dr. Afrin Naz, WVU Tech professor of computer science and Academy organizer, said the competition served to boost teamwork skills and bring the concepts and lessons students learned together in a cohesive way.

“The group competition has been beneficial for many of these girls because it’s been helping them with leadership, presentation and communication skills, and we’re already seeing a change in some of them as they become more confident and vocal as they work within their teams,” said Naz.

“By including the competition element, the students are paying more attention in each class. They’re making connections between these fields and how one field can have an impact on another. They are also better able to articulate what they like and dislike in each field because they have to think about what they are learning in an analytical way,” she said.

Dr. Naz said that the Academy also had a strong parental involvement component, where parents participated in the final competition and provided survey data before and after the program.

As a counselor, WVU Tech biology student Taylor Miltenberger said the Academy was an opportunity to connect with young students headed down the path she’s taking. Miltenberger, a first-generation college student, was able to share her experiences with students who will be in her shoes in just a few short years.

“I didn’t have this kind of opportunity when I went to school – it was always just pick what you like and you don’t always know until you’re in it whether you really enjoy a field. Students can picture themselves in these careers here because of the activities we’ve been going over with them. They get to see what a biologist or an engineer really does and they can connect with that,” she said.

Many of the Academy’s attendees shared that the all-girls format of the Academy was a draw for them, as it allowed students to start the program on common ground with girls who hold similar interests.

Stephanie Fletcher graduated high school a year early from Independence High School in Coal City, West Virginia, and will be studying chemical engineering at WVU Tech in the fall. She said she had originally applied to attend WVU Tech’s co-ed Camp STEM, but changed her mind when she heard about the all-girls Academy.

“In engineering and science fields you’re always going to be outnumbered by guys, so I liked how it focused more on the impact that women can have and the job opportunities women have,” she said.

“I did a lot of research and thought I would go into the medical field. The more I looked, the more I realized that I liked engineering. I want to work in manufacturing and work on creating things with an economical and environmental emphasis. It’s been great to learn about careers from professors and speakers who know what’s going on for women in these fields,” she said.

Academy students took their experience on the road during the camp as well, visiting Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia’s plant in Buffalo, West Virginia, where they toured the company’s manufacturing facility and met with the plant’s president, Millie Marshall. The group also visited the Clay Center in Charleston.

The STEM Summer Academy for Girls was sponsored by Toyota and AT&T, who gave generously of their time and talents to ensure that girls from throughout the state and beyond could experience the program. WVU Tech thanks these companies for their support.

Check out local coverage of the Academy from West Virginia Public BroadcastingWest Virginia ExecutiveThe Charleston Daily MailThe Charleston Gazette and WOWK TV 13. For photos of the week’s activities, visit WVU Tech on Flickr.