Melanie's Mission:
Science, Technology, Engineering and Math workshop for science-focused HS girls 'stems' from ARL researcher's past, passion for youth

January 24, 2012

Story Highlights

  • Ms. Melanie Will-Cole participated in a Young Women in Science and Engineering (YWISE) College and Career Workshop.
  • 50 juniors and seniors from The Science and Math Academy (SMA) at Aberdeen High School attended workshop.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Science Foundation, women constitute 46.5 percent of the U.S. workforce but hold just 25 percent of math and computer science jobs and 11 percent of engineering jobs.

ABERDEEN, Md. - Ms. Melanie Will-Cole is a long way from her native New Mexican upbringing. But with as many turquoise stones as she has professional accolades, she represents an underrepresented example of women in STEM: real women with personal interests and uncompromising style wrapped around a highly-functioning scientific brain.

For her, that was the point of the Dec. 1, Young Women in Science and Engineering (YWISE) College and Career Workshop, held at the Battelle Conference Center in Aberdeen, Md., that attracted 50 juniors and seniors from The Science and Math Academy (SMA) at Aberdeen High School.

Will-Cole, a senior research scientist in the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Ceramics and Transparent Materials Branch and an ARL Fellow, donated her annual fellow's stipend to fund a workshop she said she'd been envisioning for almost two years.

Cole said the inspiration behind the workshop is her daughter Alex, a senior at SMA. "Over the last several years I watched Alex and her girlfriends grow into budding young scientists who learned to question, analyze, hypothesize and conceptually understand the fields of science, math and engineering. Although these SMA girls are exposed to science and engineering research via their SRT (science research and technology which they take every year) classes and capstone senior thesis, I felt something was missing. "

"What was missing was their interaction with real women professionals in STEM" Cole pondered. "I wanted the girls to see past the stereotype which somehow makes women in STEM appear surreal and untouchable. I wanted the girls to understand that female professional scientists, engineers and mathematicians are 'real people' and that although they have a demanding STEM career, they also have families, hobbies, play sports, participate in the arts, music, dance and are active volunteers within their own community."

Speakers included Dr. Amy Bodycott, associate veterinarian from the Churchville Veterinary Clinic and Swan Creek Veterinary Clinic in Harford County; Dr. Nina M. Lamba, president and chief scientist of CCL Biomedical, Inc. in Havre de Grace; Dr. Leslie Lamberson, postdoctoral research fellow at The John Hopkins University and assistant professor at Drexel University; Dr. Kathleen Meier-Hellstern, executive director of AT&T Government Solutions from Middletown, N.J.; and Dr. Amy Lafreniere, senior public health analyst in the National Security Global Business Emergency Management Division at Battelle Memorial Institute, Baltimore. ARL's Ms. Cole also spoke during the workshop.

Will-Cole said she never met any women like them when she was in high school.

"I never knew anyone who attended college except for my teachers in school. New Mexico has a very low education level. In fact we compete with Mississippi who have the lowest performers on national test scores," she said. "My brother, sister and I are the first in my family to go to college. My sister became an architect, my brother is a doctor and, well me, I am a civil servant for the ARL."

She also said her high school did not offer any science classes beyond general biology.

"Math classes were fairly solid within my high school curriculum," she said. "I did not particularly enjoy biology, and since I had no exposure to the physical sciences (chemistry, physics, engineering, earth science etc.) in high school I decided to take all the math classes that were offered in my high school. It's not that I was 'in love with math' but that it was the only STEM class offered in my high school and I just happened to be good at it."

When she told her high school counselor that she wanted to go to college, Will-Cole was advised to take an entrance exam. "Something called the SAT," she remembered thinking. She joined about 30 other high school students who "all showed up at the New Mexico state fair grounds on a warm Saturday morning and took this college entrance test outside, on picnic tables with such rough surfaces that it was difficult to blacken the little circles on the answer sheet with my number two pencil. I remember this like it was yesterday."

This scenario, she said, is a far cry from the SAT prep classes now conducted in climate-controlled testing facilities.

The day-long workshop was co-sponsored by the ARL, the high school and Battelle to facilitate candid discussions on trends, obstacles and opportunities for women in STEM fields.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Science Foundation, women constitute 46.5 percent of the U.S. workforce but hold just 25 percent of math and computer science jobs and 11 percent of engineering jobs.

Speakers presented vignettes on their careers and personal lives during the workshop, which also incorporated a couple of mixers designed to engage girls and women in open, frank discussions.

Janice Rhodes, who has worked at Battelle for 20 years and is Manager of ID/IQ programs, is a lifelong Aberdeen resident and a graduate of Aberdeen High School. "When I went to Aberdeen the focus was not on math and science for women," she said. "The young ladies who attended really connected with the speakers. It's one of the few programs I've seen where these promising young students have a chance to interact with professionals in science and technology fields. I think that's been the missing ingredient."

Battelle's Dean Ertwine, vice president for Army business operations, encouraged teens to include social skills building like networking, team building and leadership development skills in their educational pursuits.

"Battelle has a long history of supporting STEM education in Harford County and in Maryland, including support for the Science and Math Academy since its inception. At Battelle we believe that involvement with day-to-day science education at local schools is critical to development of the next generation STEM workforce," he said.

 

Last Update / Reviewed: January 24, 2012