MONACA, Pa. — Penn State Beaver Assistant Teaching Professor of Biology Stephanie Cabarcas-Petroski looked out at the 70-plus, seventh-grade girls sitting before her.
“How many of you know the answer to a question in class, but don’t raise your hand to answer it?” she asked.
Nearly every hand shot into the air in response.
“No!” Cabarcas-Petroski shouted in feigned exasperation. “Promise me — look at the person sitting next to you and promise her — that you will raise your hand from now on!”
The girls grinned and nodded in reply.
They were on campus to participate in W.I.S.E. UP, a day of science, technology, engineering and math-related workshops and panels for seventh-grade girls in Beaver County schools. The goal was to encourage girls already interested in STEM to retain that passion and to spark an interest in girls just learning about the opportunities the STEM fields afford.
The event was sponsored by Shell Chemical and WesBanco.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, women hold a disproportionately smaller share of STEM-related college degrees, particularly in engineering. And while women make up half of the country’s workforce, only a quarter of the jobs in STEM belong to women.
“You know what that means for you?” asked Anita Williams, a Penn State Beaver admissions counselor and event co-coordinator. “It means opportunity.”
The seventh-graders — who hailed from the Beaver Falls, Central Valley, Hopewell, and Western Beaver school districts — began the day in a series of hands-on workshops led by Penn State Beaver faculty members. Then they gathered in the Student Union Building Auditorium to ask questions of a panel, made up of female STEM professionals.
The panel members were all Beaver County high school or Penn State graduates and included: Kate Becker, a chemist and marketing specialist at Chemours; Ally Conn, an engineer at SPK engineering; Kim Lawrence, a laboratory preparation technician at Penn State Beaver; Heather Michaux, a construction engineer at Shell; and Valerie Smith, a systems engineer at UPMC.
The women did not hold back. They offered some frank talk (when you’re the only woman in the office, you get the bathroom to yourself), inspiring advice (you are capable of so much more than you can imagine) and even a little feet-to-the-fire encouragement.
“Stand up,” Michaux called to a Hopewell student with a question for the panel. “Come on, you can do it. Stand up.”
The panel illustrated the oft-repeated government statistics that show women are under-represented in STEM, outlining the pitfalls and advantages of being a minority in their fields. On the one hand, they often feel as if they need to prove themselves to their male colleagues. But on the other hand, they are much more marketable simply by virtue of being female.
It’s an odd, delicate balance, but one in which they take pride.
“You have to look at the challenge or problem for what it is and not be afraid to speak up and ask questions,” Smith said. “After a while, (your colleagues) will just look at you as a member of the team.”
“Once you do your job, the stereotypes they have disappear,” she said.
But it was Becker who offered perhaps the most inspiring message of the day, garnering raucous applause and whistles from the seventh-graders.
“You are a minority, but I never see myself as a minority,” she said. “I belong there as much as anyone else does.”
In other words?
“Be a boss, ladies,” Cabarcas-Petroski said. “Be a boss.”