A Place for Girls in the STEM Space

The Society of Women Engineers Next empowers young girls to pursue interests in STEM
At Girls Geek Day, elementary-aged girls build structures using plastic tubes. SWE uses these projects like this to introduce girls to the basics of STEM.
At Girls Geek Day, elementary-aged girls build structures using plastic tubes. SWE uses these projects like this to introduce girls to the basics of STEM.
Ava Paul

March is dedicated to highlighting the accomplishments and hardships of women throughout history. This year’s Women’s History Month theme, as designated by the National Women’s History Alliance, is “Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.” 

Here are a few stories of the women who embody the 2024 Women’s History Month Theme that are making their mark on AHS history.

Though the number of women in STEM is increasing, women only make up 35% of those in STEM occupations. Generations of young girls are still being discouraged from pursuing careers in traditionally male-dominated fields like STEM. The Society of Women Engineers Next (SWENext) chapter at AHS wants to flip the script.

“There are times that, as a woman, you feel kind of out of place, especially when you don’t have a lot of role models,” co-president senior Bella DiCarlo said. SWE counteracts that by giving young local girls high school role models that encourage their STEM-related interests.

Senior Heba Alwan helps two girls explore drag-and-drop block coding at a Girls Geek Day station. (Ava Paul)

The organization hosts intro-to-STEM events for elementary to middle school girls, sometimes partnering with groups like Tech-Girls, Light House Studio and SWEs at other schools, including UVA.

Their main events are Girls Geek Days, where members teach about 60 girls about STEM through activities and projects like Bee-Bots and binary bracelets, which are “a big hit for a lot of girls,” DiCarlo said. Using different colors of beads, the girls code messages into bracelets by arranging the beads into binary code.

This school year, SWENext hosted three Girls Geek Days in December, February and March.

DiCarlo said it’s “really rewarding” to see girls who start out timid and doubtful of themselves emerge from the events feeling confident in their abilities. On Girls Geek Day, she said girls eagerly show their parents the finished projects, excited to share what they did.

At the end of events, co-president senior Ava Paul hosts a “closing circle” with the girls where they review their favorite parts of the day. “Their faces light up — they’re so happy and proud of what they were able to accomplish.”

In fact, some girls leave Girls Geek Days with such a good impression that they literally come running back to future events. “They’ll run into the room, and their parents are 20 feet behind because they sprinted up the stairs to get in,” Paul said. “It’s really exciting to see them be really excited about it.”

Having attended Girls Geek Day in elementary school, co-president senior Ava Paul joined SWENext because of the opportunity to “volunteer in a full circle moment where I could give back to the next generation.”

Three kids at SWE’s March 16 Girls Geek Day play with the multicolored slime they made. (Ava Paul)

From struggling to find representation to being underestimated, navigating the STEM field can be hard for girls. It can come with pressure, gender discrimination, and a sense of not belonging. “There is a feeling that women aren’t really in the STEM field,” senior member Juhi Naik said. 

However, she thinks the AHS MESA program makes STEM less intimidating for female students due to the even gender ratio and welcoming community. “The girls in MESA are some of the sweetest people I’ve met,” she said. “They support all your ideas and they help build you up, and even a lot of the guys are really open and welcoming.”

Young girls watch as a robot moves hexagonal game pieces around on the mat. Each Girls Geek Day event has stations with different projects for girls to try with the support of high school volunteers. (Ava Paul)

Paul, who will study mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, says that while the intimidation factor of entering STEM as a woman exists, it also drives her to succeed. “I’ve learned and grown from all of my experiences,” she said. “If anything, it motivates me to push even harder so that I can be a role model for others.”

Being role models as SWE members isn’t only about teaching STEM — it’s about encouraging girls interested in it to believe in themselves. “We’re showing girls that this is a possibility for women, going to college to be an engineer,” Naik said. “They shouldn’t hold back.”

“It’s nice to see that there are women who are doing it,” DiCarlo said. Working with UVA SWE, she gets to interact with women starting their STEM careers, which inspires her knowing that “you can, too.”

Paul wants young girls to persevere even if they’re nervous about trying something new. “Half of engineering is failing and trying again,” she said. “Don’t avoid trying something because you’re worried you’ll fail.”

SWENext co-president Bella DiCarlo helps a girl use BirdBrain Technologies to learn about coding at a Girls Geek Day station. (Photo courtesy of Bella DiCarlo)

The co-presidents think it can be difficult for girls to fit in in STEM classes since there is less emphasis on women’s accomplishments in the field throughout history. Women responsible for major scientific accolades often get overlooked for their male counterparts who sometimes even steal the credit.

Celebrating Women’s History Month helps women receive proper representation, which DiCarlo believes is key to empowering young girls. “Having a whole month that focuses on all that women do and have done is really important to show all girls — especially girls at formative ages — that it wasn’t just men,” she said. “We also have a voice.”

“Women went through a lot of hardships to get where we are now, and there’s still a lot of work that needs to happen,” Naik said, “but it’s about celebrating who we are as people and how we can move forward.”

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Anna Zheng
Anna Zheng, Editor in Chief
Senior Anna Zheng (she/her) is in her fourth year of journalism as Editor in Chief. She previously served as Social Media Editor for two years and hopes to use journalism in her career in the future.

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