Driving girls toward STEM careers

Jessica Thiel
Posted by of Insight Publications

When Veronika Pashkina, a mechanical engineer with Miller Electric, tells people what she does for a living, some still ask her if she drives a train and wears a hat.

“1850 called,” she jokes, “get with the program.”

Smart Girls Rock, a program that Tiffany Carter, another mechanical engineer with Miller Electric spearheaded, held its second annual event last week. One of its objectives was to correct misconceptions like the one Pashkina mentioned.

Carter, who’d wanted to become an engineer from a young age, relied on her dad, also an engineer, to expose her to and teach her about the profession.

After establishing herself in her field, Carter decided she wanted to help create a path for girls who came after her. She learned about Smart Girls Rock, which originated in Alaska as a program designed to encourage girls to consider engineering as a career.

With the help and blessing of her employer, Carter partnered with the Talent Collaborative of the Fox Cities Chamber, to launch her own version – one that focused on all science, technology, engineering and math careers.

“STEM outreach is very important, especially for women,” Carter says.

More than 40 female mentors representing fields like engineering, construction, health care, information technology and finance united to educate attendees about career options and clarify misconceptions about STEM professions.

The event drew 95 freshmen and sophomore girls from Appleton West, Menasha, Neenah and St. Mary’s Central high schools. Participants took part in group mentoring and interactive activities like coding an Ozobot and experimenting with a 3D doodle pen.

With the STEM field sorely in need of talent, the event is a win for employers and girls alike, according to Carter. She’s banking on the girls remembering the support they received. And as for the employers? These girls could be their future employees.

Freshman and sophomore year is the ideal window to reach girls, according to Carter. “That’s the age where you’re typically figuring out what to do,” she says, going on to note that students still have time to plot their high school classes at that point.

Sophia Schwartzbauer, a freshman at Menasha High School who aspires to become a pediatrician, said she enjoyed learning about the different types of jobs available and hearing about the paths the mentors followed to reach their goals.

That impact is what inspired Pashkina, who didn’t think of engineering as an option for herself when she was in high school, to mentor again this year. She describes receiving a heartfelt thank-you note from one of last year’s participants.

“I came into this event thinking I just wanted to be a lawyer,” the girl wrote. “But after talking you I realized I actually want to be an engineer.”

With any luck, this girl can help spread the word that engineers no longer drive trains and wear striped hats.