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UVA-Wise's STEM-H program lets girls imagine what they can be

KATHY STILL, Community Contributor • Updated Nov 9, 2016 at 1:31 PM

WISE — Kelsey Johnson, an astrophysicist with the University of Virginia, asked about 400 sixth-grade girls from Southwest Virginia Monday to draw a picture of a scientist. The youngsters took pen to paper and earnestly went to work.

Johnson, an assistant professor of astronomy, showed the girls a slide with about a dozen pictures of male scientists.

“If your drawing looks like this, scribble it out,” she said. “Draw another scientist. Draw yourself doing science. Your drawing of you doing science is going to be awesome.”

The girls, with a new spark in their eyes, went to work again and drew a picture of what could be, and that activity was one of many lessons the sixth-graders learned at the inaugural Girls Day in STEM-H at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. The event, held in the David J. Prior Convocation Center, was organized by UVa-Wise faculty and staff to show the young girls that careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health are not just for men.

Studies show that young girls begin to lose interest in STEM-H fields of study just before they reach high school. The numbers drop again in high school and in college. Girls Day in STEM-H was organized to encourage the girls to keep their interest in those areas.

“I think I have the very best job in the world,” Johnson told the girls. “I get to study galaxies colliding. I get to work with some of the brightest young people in the world. I get to talk about crazy stuff like whether there are other dimensions, and I get paid for it. I get to travel all over the world.”

Johnson gets to do what she called “amazing things,” but she said that was not always the case. She grew up in a home headed by a single mother. Things were not always easy, and encouragement was not always abundant.

She reminded the girls that they all have the ability to write their own stories, and she said that is what she decided to do when she was about their age.

“I decided I needed to understand my place in the universe,” she said.

She learned things in school that did not make much sense at the time. She learned that fire needs oxygen to burn, yet she wondered why stars in space burn.

“This drove me nuts,” she said. “There were mysteries in the universe that I didn’t know the answers to, and from then on I was hooked. That was it for me.”

She went to science camp as a young girl, even though she wanted to be popular. Popular girls did not go to science camp, but it was there that she found girls with similar interests, and she went to science camp for the next five years.

“I realized I had found my tribe,” she said. “Some of my best friends today were at those science camps.”

Several hands flew up when Johnson asked if they didn’t understand or like science, and she said that broke her heart. Today’s society must understand science and technology because it is embedded in everything. Those who don’t understand science and technology tend to get left behind, and girls are the ones who get left behind the most, she said.

Just 30 percent of students in science classes in college are women, and only 11 percent of women have careers in STEM-H. The imposter syndrome, a term for knowledgeable people who internalize their accomplishments because they fear being exposed as a fraud, seems to hit women the hardest.

“It starts now,” she told the girls. “The self-esteem of girls drops faster than boys.”

She urged the girls to remember that imposter syndrome exists and to surround themselves with others who will support them when self-esteem dips.

Girls Day in STEM-H also included a variety of activities and demonstrations for the sixth-graders. UVa-Wise plans to hold the event each year to encourage girls to remain interested in STEM-H fields.

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