March 20, 2024

Young Women’s STEM Conference Features Experiments, Networking, and Lots of Fun

A HAIR-RAISING EXPERIENCE: The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s (PPPL) Van de Graaff generator causes the experimenter’s hair to stand on end from the effects of static electricity. Almost 900 young women in grades seven through ten enjoyed hands-on experiments, chemistry demos, presentations, and extensive networking as they participated in PPPL’s Young Women’s Conference in STEM held at Princeton University last Friday. (Michael Livingston/PPPL Department of Communications)

By Donald Gilpin

Nearly 900 aspiring scientists gathered at the Frick Chemistry Laboratory at Princeton University on March 15 for the Young Women’s Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).

Hands-on activities, small group presentations, chemistry demos, a keynote address, and networking throughout the day introduced the young women, seventh to tenth graders, to many practicing engineers and scientists and a variety of STEM careers.

In its 23rd year, this biggest ever Young Women’s Conference in STEM is now the Young Women’s Conference East, since the PPPL has for the first time added a second conference, the Young Women’s Conference West, to be held at San Diego State University on May 17.

“It was a fantastic day all around — the girls were very engaged,” said PPPL Science Education Program Manager Deedee Ortiz, who organized the conference along with PPPL Science Education Administrator Britt Albucker, “Now we’re looking forward to doing the same thing on the West Coast.” There were 60 volunteers helping to run the Princeton conference, most of them from PPPL.

The young women participated in many different activities at more than 20 different displays. They steered a robot with a young woman from WAGS (We Are Girl Scouts) Robotics, made origami with a volunteer from Princeton University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, learned about forensics at the FBI display, had their hair stand on end from static electricity created by the Van de Graaff generator at the PPPL exhibit, and much more.

As part of the day’s activities, four New Jersey high school juniors who show promise in STEM received the Math and Science Award from PPPL’s Women in Engineering Employee Resource Group. The four will receive a laptop, a certificate, and an award, and will be mentored during their senior year by PPPL engineers who are members of the group.

Another highlight of the day was a series of chemistry demos by Angie Miller, a lecture demonstrator in the Princeton University Chemistry Department, who showed a figure made of marshmallows expanding in a vacuum chamber and other chemistry phenomena that elicited excited reactions from the audience.

The keynote speech for the conference was delivered by Princeton University Psychology Professor Tania Lombrozo, who recounted her own journey to become a scientist.

Other women in STEM careers shared their stories at a career panel moderated by Hekima Qualls, PPPL chief procurement officer. They advised young women in STEM careers to find a support system, even if it’s outside their classes or jobs.

Hayin Candiotti, a senior project engineer at Abbott Laboratories, urged the audience, “Go into a job that you love where you can make a difference in the world and you’re challenged every day.”

The growth of this conference is just one indication of significant progress by women in STEM fields in the past few decades, in K-12 education, in colleges and universities, and in the workforce, but they are still underrepresented in many areas.

A study on “The State of Girls and Women in STEM,” published this month by the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP), indicated that in K-12 education girls and young women’s achievement in mathematics and science is on par with that of boys and young men, but while an overwhelming majority of young women earn credits in advanced science and math courses, they participate less in advanced physics and computer science courses.

At the college level, women earn 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees in all fields but only 50 percent of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering. Women earn a majority of bachelor’s degrees in psychology, biological sciences, and social sciences, but they earn only 24 percent of engineering degrees, 21 percent of computer science degrees, and 24 percent of physics degrees.