The Making of a STEM-Savvy (Female) Student

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Emily.jpegThe world needs more girls like Emily Oleisky. Specifically, the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) needs more girls like her.

Emily, a 17-year-old junior at Garrison Forest School, is one of just 35 female high school students (out of 2,700 competing nationwide) to win the prestigious award, “Aspirations in Computing,” from the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

The award recognizes winners for their leadership and potential in computer science and rewards them with $500, a new laptop, and some phenomenal networking opportunities with women in the computer science field.

For Emily, this means she is on pace to buck some pretty woeful statistics related to females and STEM. In 1970, a tiny seven percent of the entire STEM workforce was comprised of females. That figure jumped to a more respectable 23 percent by 1990, but stalled at 26 percent by 2011, according to U.S. Census Bureau data—despite a push in recent years to interest girls in pursuing STEM-related education and careers.

As educators, industry experts, and others ponder why so few females pursue STEM careers, a glimpse into Emily’s background suggests how to get more girls excited about them.

Emily was born with a STEM advantage, if you will. Her mother, a chemistry teacher, surrounded her daughters with microscopes, building materials such as legos, and other science-like ‘’toys” from a young age. Emily took to them immediately.

Beginning in the early grades, school also fed Emily’s thirst for science. In fourth grade, she joined Garrison’s Robotics Team. “We did the first lego league challenge. You build your robot with legos, use lego Mindstorming programming,” said Emily, as matter-of-factly as if this is something every fourth grader does in her spare time.

In Garrison’s Upper School, Emily has found even more opportunities to satiate her appetite for STEM. She serves as the co-captain of the Upper School’s Robotics Team, she co-founded the school’s Computer Science Club and, along with just one other student, she was the first Garrison student to take an advanced placement computer science class.

“Other students were like, ‘What is that?’,” Emily said, of the course she takes that teaches advanced programming skills.

Something with which her classmates are more familiar is Garrison’s Women in Science and Engineering, or WISE, a program forged in 2005 with Johns Hopkins University to provide interested and qualified high school students with female mentors in JHU’s Schools of Engineering, Arts and Sciences, or Public Health. A customized curriculum during junior or senior year, combined with a semester-long research experience at JHU under the tutelage of a dedicated mentor, makes for an invaluable experience.

A WISE participant, Emily is paired with a ‘gap-year’ student who recently graduated from Hopkins with a biomedical engineering degree. She talks excitedly about the program. “It’s been really awesome. It’s great that my mentor is so young. She has the new and fresh advice on college. And seeing how much she knows about this field is kind of amazing,” Emily says.

Two afternoons a week at the Whiting School of Engineering’s Biomedical Engineering Department’s Neuroengineering and Bioinstrumentation Lab, Emily assists research/design engineer Marisa Babb as she works to create a machine that stimulates the human olfactory system. The ultimate goal of the project? To be able to interrupt the degeneration that occurs with diseases like Alzheimer’s, in which sufferers lose their sense of smell.

Most students pursue the laboratory portion of the WISE program for a semester. Emily has arranged to extend her lab experience for her entire junior year, and perhaps into the summer. “Emily is very eager to learn new things and is willing to put in the extra hours on weekends and weeknights because she sees a lot of value in her experiences and what she’s learning. I think that is going to really let her excel in her chosen field,” said Emily’s mentor Babb.

In spite of what seems like an all-consuming passion for scientific pursuits, Emily also demonstrates a strong affinity for the performing arts. She’s been a part of Garrison’s school productions every year since sixth grade, and participates in the Upper School Dance Program. “It’s a stress reliever. It balances out academics really well,” Emily said.

This practical perspective will serve Emily well as she continues on the challenging but rewarding career path she began to carve out for herself as a little girl. Though she hasn’t pinpointed what particular STEM field she’ll pursue, Emily does profess to be certain of one thing. “I’d like to make a career out of it,” she said.


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