Outreach helps shape tomorrow’s innovators

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

The history of China Lake is riddled with milestones, firsts and breakthroughs that have helped the Navy, and the United States, keep on the leading edge of technology for the last seven decades. But advocates point to an unsung innovation coming out of this intellectual community that is every bit as significant as local contributions to national defense — a push to close the gender gap in STEM careers.

In recent years higher-education enrollment in the U.S. shows the number of female students eclipsing the number of male students. At the same time, women make up less than a quarter of science, technology, engineering and mathematics professionals.

Expanding Your Horizons gives middle-school girls an introduction to some of these career opportunities through hands-on workshops that explore the excitement of real-world applications for everything from aeronautical engineering to biochemistry to veterinary medicine.

“Our thought is that if girls are given this opportunity to be exposed to what they can do in some of these careers, they might find an interest in STEM they might not have found otherwise,” said Linda Homer, who has been chairing the event for 13 years.

EYH is a national program designed to cultivate STEM interest and curiosity in the young women of our nation. Homer heard about it through her supervisor and passed along a query to the young professionals in the Engineer and Scientist Development Program at China Lake to determine interest in staging an event locally.

Homer said that sending that initial e-mail made her “default leader,” but for more than a decade she and a dedicated team of volunteers have been working during their lunch hours, evenings and weekends to put together a day of learning (disguised as fun) for young ladies.

This year more than 100 volunteers planned and led workshops and supported the logistical demand of shepherding more than 150 students and visitors through the secure facility.

Homer noted that even though most of the workshops focus on careers available at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, it is important to her team to offer exposure to anything that has a scientific or technical focus.

EYH mentors point to the program itself as evidence of progress in the evolution of trailblazing STEM career pathways for women. Many of the workshop leaders point to their own lack of female role models in entering the male-dominated fields as their inspiration for reaching out to youth.

Anecdotally, many of the female professionals who devote time to EYH note that they stumbled on their own professions during the pursuit of other careers. What truly creates the gender divide is not a lack of capability, they say, but a lack of early exposure.

“We are always looking for opportunities to create passion and energy in STEM,” said Susie Raglin, the director of corporate operations at NAWCWD and emcee for EYH.

“If any of these girls leaves this workshop more curious about something they learned here — whether it’s drawing DNA out of a strawberry or designing a parachute and getting to watch it deploy — then we have accomplished our goal.”

In keeping with the China Lake culture of being “first,” the local EYH program was the first in the country to be held on a military installation. The China Lake team has subsequently shared its success with peers, fostering similar opportunities at Patuxent River and Point Mugu.

Homer attributes the success and longevity of the China Lake program to a tremendous swell of support not only from the mentors but also from WD’s top military and civilian leaders who turn out to support the event.

This year, NAWCWD Commander Rear Adm. Mike Moran and Executive Director Scott O’Neil addressed the girls about the opportunities that led them to STEM fields and the importance of developing the STEM workforce for the future.

“There are few things as important as what we are doing this morning,” said Moran. “The United States has historically been a preeminent power in the world. Why do you think that is? It’s because our advancements in science and technology have led the world in every field. If you choose a career in one of these fields, you are not just helping yourself, but you are making a difference for your families and for this country.”

Moran and O’Neil also note that the technological edge historically enjoyed by the U.S. cannot be taken for granted — and that the number of students entering STEM fields is declining.

“It is truly a matter of national security,” said Raglin. “We’ve had the edge for so long, but if you look at educational trends around the world, we are losing that edge.

“Innovation derives from our advancements in the STEM fields. When you see that ‘aha!’ moment for one of the girls in our workshops, you are planting a seed for that future workforce.”

WD has added the Young Engineers and Scientists (YES!) program to allow middle school boys a similar opportunity. But Raglin said that by offering girls their own day, “you eliminate the pressure they might feel from worrying about what the boys think, and let them flourish in a hands-on learning environment.”

Homer said that one more notable thank-you belongs to the IWV community, which allows the EYH team to keep costs down for the participants. WD donates use of the lab, but everything else — from lab materials to lunch — is donated by the community.

“Every year this community comes through. I think it shows our community is generous, but I think it also says something about the local investment in the outreach.”

Story First Published: 2014-03-05