Princeton alumni, graduate students, and staff helped to encourage local girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and math at the first Girl Scout STEM Fair, held at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) May 17.
Cheryl Rowe-Rendleman ’81, who has been working with Girl Scouts USA on the organization’s science platform for the last nine years, and Theresa Gillars, a Girl Scout leader and senior staff accountant at PPPL, began outlining plans for the event late last year. There was room for about 300 Girl Scouts from central and southern New Jersey, and the spots filled in two weeks, well in advance of the fair — a sign that girls have a strong and underserved interest in the sciences, Rowe-Rendleman said.
With participants ranging in age from 8 to 16, the organizers designed a variety of age-appropriate activities, held in small groups. Younger girls played with science toys and took part in activities that fueled a sense of questioning. Older participants chose from sessions on computer science, sustainability, robotics, and other fields. They also attended a science-themed college fair and listened to first-hand accounts from women at different stages of their careers, including undergraduates, graduate students, professionals, and faculty members.
Rowe-Rendleman, a consultant and Ph.D., heads a local alumni mentorship program that connects women in the sciences with women in Princeton’s graduate programs. Her ties to the graduate school and the alumni community helped her to recruit Princeton facilitators for the STEM fair, including Jeff Parker, a Ph.D. student in plasma physics, and Allison Simi, a Ph.D. student in chemical and biological engineering.
Simi said that her path to engineering began in fourth grade, when she applied for and was accepted into a gifted and talented math program. Because she was exposed to rigorous math at a young age, she was never fearful — and she never looked back.
Rowe-Rendleman hopes that the STEM fair provided the same kind of positive exposure to hundreds of potential scientists by showing a path to an interesting range of careers, and doing it “with a smile.” “The path should not be arduous,” she said. “It should be fun.”