STEM conference aims to empower girls

Youth. Hundreds of local girls and young women participated in a STEM conference at Sussex Community College on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. Keynote speakers introduced the students to a variety of careers in science, engineering and math. The speakers were also frank about the challenges women and girls face may face when entering a mostly male dominated field.

12 Jan 2020 | 10:57

More than 200 girls and young women from area high schools met at Sussex County Community College on Thursday, Jan. 9, for a day-long Women in STEM event which offered keynote speakers and hands-on workshops designed to introduce the students to a variety of careers in science and engineering. STEM is a relatively new acronym, coined in the early 2000s to encompass and tie together the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math.

The symposium was organized by Newton High School technology teacher and FIRST Varsity Robotics team coach James Hofmann, and supported by technology partner Thorlabs and sponsor Johnson & Johnson. The morning session of the event included video presentations from Newton High School graduates Danielle DeFeo, who works as an engineer at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, and Cassie Yauch, who is completing an engineering degree at Virginia Tech.

SCCC’s Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Mercedes Aguirre-Batty welcomed the students, followed by keynote speakers Matthew Richtmyer of J&J, Stacey Yauch of Picatinny Arsenal, and Audrey Wall of Thorlabs. They spoke of their respective careers and talked about the impact that women have, but they were also candid about the difficulties that young women may face when they enter traditionally male professions.

Ending the morning session were remarks from Lorena Kirschner, program manager for Girl Scouts of Northern New Jersey. Kirschner engaged the students with a series of "raise your hands if" questions, including if they knew that all-female technology sororities existed.

Kirschner noted that in her tenure with the Girl Scouts, she’s seen a technology revolution and seen a rise in the number of young women interested in STEM careers. The Girl Scouts of Northern New Jersey now hold annual STEM-Fest events to foster a love of science and engineering. Kirschner reminded the students not to be fearful.

“Failure is just data,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to fail, because we can learn from data.”

Sitting with their technology instructor Doug Carnegie at the break, the student contingent from Kittatinny Regional High School was excited about the morning’s lecturers and eager to try their hands at the afternoon’s hands-on projects.

Riley H. was also impressed with the openness of the presenters.

“They were really honest with their answers to all our questions,” she said.

The girls all agreed that they would definitely recommend the conference to their fellow students to attend.

“When I have a balance of boys and girls in my classroom, there is a change in dynamics," said Carnegie.

After lunch, the girls broke into groups for hands-on activities, ranging from using mirrors and fiber optics to create prisms to building a functional pair of speakers from paper plates and magnetic coils to explore the physics of sound.

Hofmann was pleased with attendance and support of the event, the first of its kind for area intermediate and high schools. The dozens of attendees came from Newton High School, Green Hills School, Long Pond School, Vernon High School, Hopatcong High School, Lafayette Middle School, Kittatinny High School, Sussex Charter School, Stanhope School, Mount Olive High School, and Sussex Technical School, and were primarily in grades 7-10.

“We’ve got girls from all over the region,” Hofmann said. “So we’ll get feedback from the students and teachers as to what they liked and what we can do to tweak things and improve for next year. But this is a great start.”

Hofmann was glad for the support of his administration, sponsors, and speakers, and was quick to give praise to Newton High School sophomore Abigail Nicholas, who served as student ambassador for the event.

“When we started talking about this, and we began having meetings, Abby just stepped up,” Hofmann said. “She really wanted to make this happen for herself and these hundreds of other girls.”