Engaging young women and men in science

Conferences introduce middle school girls and boys to STEM careers

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

April 11, 2012

Most middle school kids prefer to spend Saturdays sleeping in, watching TV and playing video games. But on two recent weekends, some made an exception. One-hundred and thirty girls participated in the Women in Science Conference on Saturday, March 24, and 70 boys attended its counterpart, the Men in STEM Conference, on Saturday, March 31. Both events were created by the Regional Science Resource Center (RSRC) at UMass Medical School with other members of the Central Massachusetts Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Network to support the goals of improving STEM education and increasing the number of students interested in related careers.

Sponsored by the RSRC as part of Innovation Month in the Worcester public schools, both conferences have the same objective: to expose middle school students to future career opportunities in STEM in a way that is fun, engaging, and connects the world of work to the world of the middle school student. Women in Science was established first to address the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers, with Men in STEM created subsequently in response to popular demand from middle school educators and students. The events remain separate in order to allow boys and girls to be inspired by professional role models of their own gender.

Judging from comments the kids made about their experiences at the conferences, these goals were achieved. “If I had to describe this conference to another girl, I would tell her it was really inspiring and I loved it!” wrote one Women in Science participant. Speaker Lydia Villa-Komaroff, PhD, “was very inspiring and her story makes me think that, with confidence, you can achieve your dreams,” wrote another. “I never knew about all the different jobs for females in science,” said a third.

The boys were equally enthusiastic. “I want to be an engineer because I know more about it now,” said one. “My career goals have changed because of the inspiring speech of the chairman,” wrote another. One’s advice to other boys who might attend in the future: “It was a life-changing experience. . . . Also, it was fun!”

View the slideshows to see Women in Science and Men in STEM participants in action.

Women in Science

The 16th annual Women in Science Conferencefeatured demonstrations and group activities at the EcoTarium in Worcester, followed by a luncheon and keynote address at the Medical School. Girls had a choice of three out of eight concurrent 45-minute workshops led by 23 professional women, including an engineer, marine biologist, physician, criminologist, health care professional, science teacher and environmentalist, among others. The workshops showed the students, through interactive hands-on activities, how science is used in the workplace. Presenters also explained different entry levels to their careers, and provided tips on courses of study and ways to prepare and train for their professions. Following lunch, former UMMS faculty member Lydia Villa-Komaroff, PhD, chief scientific officer at Cytonome/ST, LLC, gave a talk, “Dreams and Realities: A Life in Science."

Men in STEM

The 4th annual Men in STEM conference also began at the Ecotarium, where each middle school boy chose three out of seven different interactive workshops led by 17 men who, like Women in Science, use science in their careers and shared personal stories of overcoming obstacles as well as achieving success. The keynote speaker was Charles F. Desmond, EdD, chair of the Board of Trustees for the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, which provides funding for the Central Massachusetts STEM Network. Lunch at Intel in Hudson provided an opportunity for students and presenters to continue discussions in a more informal setting. Following lunch, the boys donned “bunny suits” in order to enter the clean rooms at Intel for a design challenge and tours of the company’s computer chip fabrication facility.

Related links:
Men in science wow middle school boys
Spring means science and math for middle schools