Late on a Friday night, 40 high school girls arrived at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt MD for a STEM-themed sleepover, ready to learn about careers in science, technology, engineering and math. According to NASA, such educational events offer young women a chance to meet working female scientists and engineers and to discover opportunities for women in STEM-related professions.
To accomplish this goal, Goddard began its third annual “STEM Girls Night In” with an astronaut Q&A, followed by talks from NASA women across disciplines and a collection of hands-on activities. In this way, the event was also part of ongoing attempts to increase K-12 involvement in agency projects, enhance higher education, support underrepresented communities and boost NASA’s contributions to informal education.
Many of the attendees expressed interest in STEM-related fields, while also commending specific science or math teachers for classroom enthusiasm, according to NASA. “My algebra teacher, she was a Navy pilot, and she just really made me fall in love with math,” said Lydia, a student at Jamestown High School in Williamsburg VA. “She always reassured me when I got frustrated that it wasn’t because I couldn’t do it, I just had to work hard and keep trying.”
Opening remarks the event were given by Christyl Johnson, Goddard’s deputy director for technology and research investments, after which the girls were separated into small groups. Each group was supported by two mentors, a Goddard scientist or engineer paired with a local university student. The groups later congregated for a personal talk from astronaut Jeanette Epps, during which students at other facilities—including NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Great Lakes Science Center in Ohio—listened in and participated remotely.
During the presentation, Epps shared insights on what it takes to be an astronaut and also discussed how she deals with adversity as a woman in STEM. “If there are stumbling blocks in your way,” Epps said, “you have to work through them, get past them and move forward. Don’t give up.”
The discussion inspired many, according to NASA, including a student named Banoo who hopes to pursue a STEM career. “[Epps] worked so hard for so many years…11 years after high school,” said Banoo. “The takeaway for me is that hard work really pays off. [Epps] is the evidence that shows people can get what they want if they work for it.”
Following Epps’ talk, the girls rotated through a series of hands-on activities led by NASA women scientists in a variety of fields, including robotics and planetary geology. Amy McAdam, a research space scientist in the Planetary Environments Laboratory at Goddard, shared with the girls the variety of paths that could lead to working at a place such as NASA. “I was encouraged by women throughout my life, like my mom, who was very supportive of me going into science,” said McAdam, who specializes in analyzing environmental samples from Mars. “Anything I can do to help encourage other young women will always be a priority to me.” In the pursuit of her passion, she found a unique career she could fall in love with, and hopes to pass on her knowledge to the next generation of women in STEM. “These sorts of opportunities should be open to everyone,” McAdam said. “Women are interested in these questions, just like everyone else, and everyone’s unique perspectives are valuable to the scientific community.”
The girls at the event had a chance to bring together such unique perspectives during a Mars rover competition held that evening. The teams created mission patches, explained vehicle designs to their peers and maintained mission roles ranging from mechanical engineers to communications specialists. Each team then competed for whose Lego-and-washer rover could travel the farthest distance.
“It was really neat to see how the different aspects of a team interplayed with each other,” said Leah, an attendee whose team won the rover competition. “Having other people you could rely on and trust and working together to accomplish something was a really great experience.”
Johnson moderated the competition as each team presented its rovers. “We wanted the girls to personally experience the engineering process and see just how much fun a STEM career can be,” Johnson said. “At the end of the event, we wanted to take them from being unsure about a STEM career to believing that they can do it if they are willing to work for it.”
The event ended up influencing both team members and attendees. “I’ve never been in a situation where the girls are so excited and ready to throw themselves into the experience,” said Sarah Hall, a mentor and mechanical engineering freshman at the University of Maryland. “It’s really important to be able to move out of your comfort zone, and we [the mentors] ended up getting as much out of it as the girls, both from them and from the women here at NASA.”
Hall shared her insight as the event headed towards bedtime, but the attendees were more than inspired to share the sentiment while packing bags, exchanging numbers or having breakfast the next morning. “Being here with these girls who all share a passion for the same kind of stuff has been incredible,” Leah said. “The women here have shown me that if I don’t let anything dissuade me, I can do anything.”