Recently, Milford High School & Applied Technology Center held its fifth STEM event for 4th and 5th grade students and parents, but the real story is what has taken place behind the scenes in recent years. According to Frank Xydias, high school engineering teacher at Milford High School, the concept of these “STEM Nights” all started in the fall of 2014.

“The idea was suggested at the engineering advisory board meeting as a way to keep non-traditional enrollment up,” he noted. “It was suggested by Kathy Carson, a parent of one of my female students. At the time, we had consecutive years of 40% non-traditional enrollment and the numbers were decreasing.”

Kathy, whose daughter Jen (now a high school senior) coordinated activities for the first few events, said the initial emphasis was on attracting girls.

“It was important to have a girls only event once the kids reached middle school, as that is the age where the girls start to step back and let the boys take over in STEM related tasks,” she said. “We wanted to make sure the girls had a chance to put their hands on things and do the experiments themselves versus watching the boys doing everything.”

Kathy said she in fact wished she had had more guidance growing up herself.

“When I was growing up, there was far less guidance in choosing a path for college, especially for girls,” she said. “I was over 40 before I really understood what an Engineer did. Looking back, if I had known such a career path was an option for me in High School, I may have pursued Engineering instead of Accounting.

Noting she has been in the engineering program since her freshman year, Jen said she knew from her first course that she wanted to go into an engineering field. Acknowledging that she is also aware of the gender gap with enrollment, she said she wanted to help work on STEM Nights because she herself “knew next to nothing about engineering going into high school.”

“If one of my friends hadn’t convinced me to take the intro class my freshman year, I would most likely be going down a completely different career path,” she said. “The events were extremely fun to both plan and run. I am a huge fan of working with kids, so I loved running the stations and getting to work with them one-on-one.”

With college just around the corner, Jen said she plans to attend the University of Rochester and major in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Materials Sciences. After college, she said she would like to enter the sports engineering field to design and analyze equipment.

“The STEM classes at MHS have fostered my interest and showed me that engineering is more than just boys working with machinery,” she said.

The results
According to Xydias, their efforts—as well as that of others—to attract more girls to STEM have led to tangible results.

“In the summer, I teach a series of summer camps at Manchester Community College—and in the summer of 2014, we had to cancel the Girls Camp due to low enrollment,” he said. “In the summer of 2015, we were at capacity for the Girls Camp and 50-80% female enrollment for the other co-ed camps. About 25% of the participants in each camp came from the Girls in STEM night held in the fall or spring.”

Echoing sentiments expressed by Xydias, Don Jalbert, director of technical studies at Milford High School, cited strong community support in making STEM Nights successful. He credited the efforts of
members of their various Program Advisory Committees in particular.

“These partners set-up ‘booths’ similar to what you would see at a trade show,” he said. “They bring demonstrations as well as swag to share with the participants. Parents that choose to remain in the school during the event also have an opportunity to meet these business and industry partners. Representatives from various campuses of CCSNH have also participated as vendors.’”

Also crediting the support of Milford School District Superintendent Bob Marquis as instrumental, Jalbert said he believes they are building some momentum.

“We are very hopeful that what we are building will eventually turn into a K-12 effort that will highlight STEM as an integral part of everyday life in school and beyond,” he said.