Seventh-grade girls explore STEM careers at Penn State Brandywine

Girl looking through microscope
Credit: Michael McDade

MEDIA, Pa. — Approximately 150 seventh-grade girls from schools in Delaware and Chester counties visited Penn State Brandywine on Thursday, May 12, for the campus’ 2016 STEM Options Day. The event was designed to give girls a day of exploration and discovery in STEM-related topics and careers.

The workshop included 17 different sessions led by successful women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Topics covered during the sessions included occupational therapy, environmental engineering, mobile app development, biology and much more.

Kate Moran from Lockheed Martin, Kathleen Hamilton from Communications Test Design Inc., Kelly Sweeny from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Denise Lessick from Boeing were among the STEM professionals who worked with the seventh-graders.

“Research shows that this is a critical age at which middle-school students make the decision to pursue STEM fields or not,” said Penn State Brandywine Professor of Mathematics Charles Helou, who helped organize the event. “Women occupy less than 25 percent of STEM careers and they are not very likely to go into STEM fields. It’s important that we show girls that STEM is a career option for them.”

One of the event sessions was led by Brandywine’s own Professor of Earth Science Laura Guertin, who started by talking about a research mission that took her to sections of the Atlantic Ocean with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Aboard the NOAA ship Thomas Jefferson, Guertin conducted a hydrographic survey that reexamined regions of the sea floor hit by Hurricane Sandy. After the talk, Guertin led an activity using nautical charts, which is the final product generated from hydrographic surveys.

“It was a rare occasion when I was encouraged to pursue a science degree,” she said. “By introducing girls to other females in STEM at such a young age, it can make a big impact on how girls view themselves and view what types of careers they may have in the future.”

The event was deja vu for Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies Jennifer Zosh, who was a participant in Penn State Brandywine’s Math Options Day program as a seventh-grader in 1996. After going on to earn her doctorate in psychological and brain sciences from Johns Hopkins University, she found herself back at Brandywine as a professor.

Math Options Day was an annual event the campus previously hosted that was similar to the new STEM Options Day program, which is more inclusive of all science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. 

“Going from participant to co-organizer and workshop leader at the event 20 years later was an amazing experience,” said Zosh. “The earlier we introduce girls to STEM disciplines, the greater the opportunity for them to take the harder science classes and to think about how that math class in high school might help them to prepare for a great career.”