Years ago, when Laura Ostar first met with a guidance counselor to switch her major to engineering, she was politely told that she “didn’t look like an engineer.” Despite coming from a long line of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professionals – including a grandmother who had helped put a man on the moon – Ostar said she had to convince her advisor that she was making the right choice.
Today, the Matawan native and Brookdale Community College alumna is on the verge of graduating from Rutgers University with a degree in mechanical engineering. After working on grant-funded projects for the National Science Foundation and presenting at national conferences over the last few years, Ostar is looking ahead to a rewarding summer internship in the fiber optics industry before returning to school to pursue her doctorate.
All of it, she said, might have been dashed if she had listened to her counselor.
“I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and I knew that I could do it,” said Ostar, speaking to a roomful of Girl Scouts gathered at Brookdale’s Lincroft campus for an interactive STEM program on April 23. “That’s the best advice I can give you. Believe in yourself.”
The program, co-hosted by Brookdale, the Girl Scouts of the Jersey Shore and the American Association of University Women (AAUW), invited more than 30 area Girl Scouts to the college for a hands-on engineering activity and a panel discussion featuring female STEM majors, graduates and working professionals.
Held for the third consecutive year, the event was designed to interest female students in growing, rewarding STEM career fields, which remain dominated by male professionals, said AAUW representative Dr. Susan Boyce. While medical fields such as nursing and internal medicine are fairly balanced, women comprise only 20 percent of today’s computer science workforce, Boyce said. In engineering, that number is closer to 10 percent.
“And these numbers have actually gone backwards since I joined the workforce in 1989,” said Boyce, a long-time computer science professional with experience at both Bell Labs and Microsoft. “In computer science, women used to represent about 40 percent of the workforce. Now it’s down to 20 percent. That’s concerning. So that’s part of the reason for the program today.”
Following an introduction by Brookdale STEM faculty members Lisa Hailey, Nathalie Darden and Susan Monroe, the Girl Scouts were broken up into teams and tasked with building a functioning “roller coaster” out of paper coffee cups, cardboard paper towel tubes, wooden sticks, tape and a length of rubber tubing.
The goal was to create a track that could support a marble from start to finish. The twist? The track also had to contain a loop.
Teams invented a number of creative solutions to the problem, experimenting with various starting heights and loop designs and finding varying degrees of success. By the conclusion of the hour-long program, multiple teams had successfully completed the challenge, a task that had proven difficult for college-level students and faculty alike, Darden said. Even those girls who were unable to finish in time learned some valuable lessons in physics, engineering and the benefits of perseverance.
“This is what engineering is,” Darden told the teams following the program. “You start with a goal or a question and you formulate an idea. If it doesn’t work, you rethink your strategy and keep trying. It’s about not being intimidated, and proving to yourself that you can do this.”
For Maya Jackson, a nine-year-old Girl Scout from Brick, the feeling of success was pretty rewarding as well.
“It was hard to make sure the marble would go through the loop and land in the cup, and not on the table or on the floor,” Jackson said. “But it was exciting when we finally did it. It was stress-relieving too.”
Following the activity, the Girl Scouts participated in a panel discussion with current Brookdale STEM majors Luiza Guazzelli, Leticia Oliveira, and Ikrom Ibrahim, alongside Ostar, Brookdale STEM instructional assistant Lauren Reidy and Dr. Susan Pearsall, a user experience researcher at AT&T in Middletown.
Topics included the transition from high school to college, the difficulty of STEM education and the challenges of pursuing a career in a male-dominated field. Many Girl Scouts also wanted to know the best part about being STEM professional.
“When you really get those difficult problems that you are stuck on for hours, and you’re banging your head and about to give up, and then you finally figure it out,” said Ostar. “There is this sense of relief and accomplishment. It’s one of the best feelings you can have. You realize, ‘Wow, I actually did that. I wonder what else I can do?'”
Other panelists described the higher wages, job security and unique career opportunities afforded in the STEM field, including the ability to travel, study and find work anywhere in the world. Boyce described how she ultimately reached a point in her career at Microsoft where she was able to meet face-to-face with Bill Gates.
“You can do these things,” Boyce said. “You could meet with Bill Gates – you could even be Bill Gates.”
For Caroline Osborne, a 16-year-old Girl Scout and member of a Girl Scouts Robotics Team based out of Farmingdale, the program was a successful form of outreach for younger students who are being exposed to math and science for the first time.
“I’m in high school and I’m just getting used to seeing all these new opportunities and programs for STEM students,” said Osborne, of Colts Neck. “Showing these things to students while they are young gives them more time to practice, more time to gain knowledge and more time to really become interested in these subjects.
“Yes, it can be frustrating, but this shows that it can be rewarding as well,” she added. “It’s not all lectures about how the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. It’s actually hands-on building. This is what this field is, and these are the kinds of things you can do with it.”
Check out more photos from the Girl Scout program here.