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Local

STEM Divas aims to inspire love of science for girls

Pettee Guerrero knows there’s a need for more women in the science and engineering professions.

So the STEM outreach associate at Northern Illinois University took her passion for the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields and created STEM Divas, a series of classes just for girls ages 7 to 11.

“I was lucky enough to grow up in a family of engineers,” Guerrero said. “I have the knowledge, power and resources so I feel it’s my duty to share that with girls. I saw a need for more females in this field.”

This Saturday, 11 girls armed with pink drills, pink tool belts and pink hard hats measured, drilled and painted their own jewelry boxes at NIU’s Swen Parson Hall. In previous classes, Guerrero said the girls have made lip gloss, used a 3-D printer to make their own jewelry and made LED bracelets.

Reagan Vanderbleek, 10, of DeKalb said she was having a “lot of fun” at Saturday’s class.
“You can make your own stuff, and you get to try out different things and you get to use drills,” she said.

This was Caitlin Cassello’s fourth STEM Divas class. The 10-year-old DeKalb resident said she loves creating new things.

“I like that we get to do it ourselves, and make it from scratch. I want to make another jewelry box at home and give it to my friend,” she said.

Guerrero began STEM Divas last fall as part of NIU’s “STEM Saturdays” program, which offers a variety of classes for kids and adults at both the DeKalb and Naperville campuses.

“I’ve always wanted to create a program just for girls,” Guerrero said. “Girls are different from boys. Girls ask more questions, and are more detailed. They have different learning styles. During middle school, girls often lose interest in science. Our program is before they’re in middle school to keep them interested in science.”

She hopes that getting girls interested in science at a young age will increase the number of women working in the STEM fields. She said women make up only about 13 percent of the workforce.

“It’s a stereotype; boys are engineers or scientists and girls are sent toward nursing or teaching. We want to break those stereotypes and show them that girls can be engineers and scientists,” Guerrero said.

Elizabeth Gaillard, a chemistry professor at NIU, said she thinks the media are partly to blame for some of the negative views about women in STEM fields.

“In the past, it wasn’t ‘cool’ for a woman to be a scientist, but now it’s becoming more ‘cool,’” Gaillard said. “They’re being portrayed in the media in a more positive way, which I think makes a difference.”

Gaillard said she’s noticing more women in the STEM fields, and said NIU’s graduate program in the chemistry department is “about 50-50” men and women.

Jeremy Benson, STEM outreach associate at NIU, said the movement to get more girls involved in STEM fields has taken off in the past five years.

“We need more women in these fields,” Benson said. “It’s been male-dominated for no good reason and there aren’t too many role models for women in science. Women should be just as involved in designing things. We need their perspective to solve problems.”

STEM Divas pairs the girls up with a “mentor,” who is a female student majoring in one of NIU’s STEM fields. Guerrero said the personal attention the girls receive from their mentor is extremely important.

“They get to be with role models who share the same interests, and the girls feel more comfortable asking questions,” she said. “The college students are so excited and want to volunteer, they want to help get girls interested in science.”

Guerrero said she does see more women entering STEM fields, but “not nearly as many as we want.” She said it’s up to adults to provide girls with the experience and access to STEM fields.

“It’s not our kids’ job,” she said. “It’s our job to give them the knowledge and educate them. If we can do that, we’ll get a lot more women in the field.”

For more information about STEM Divas or the STEM Saturdays program at NIU, visit niu.edu/stem.

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