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Young Women’s Conference cheers on girls interested in STEM

The Young Women’s Conference hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) became a pep rally for science this year when all 400 girls attending shouted “Science” at the top of their lungs from the bleachers in Jadwin Gymnasium at the urging of keynote speaker Jayatri Das. It was no doubt the first such cheer ever shouted in the gym.

Das, the chief bioscientist at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, noted that more seventh to tenth graders attend the conference each year. “It keeps getting better and better!” she said. “Twenty years ago I was you and there was nothing like this.”

The “Science” cheer was a fitting conclusion to PPPL’s Young Women’s Conference (YWC) in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics on March 21, which was aimed at inspiring young women’s interest in the STEM fields and sparking their interest in STEM careers. Girls from 46 schools flocked to the Frick Chemistry Building at Princeton University to take part in hands-on experiments, tour University laboratories and talk to female scientists and engineers.

Studies show that many girls lose interest in science in middle school. More than half of college graduates (57 percent) are women but only 20 percent of incoming female freshman say they intend to major in a STEM field, compared with 31 percent of males. And while more women are entering some STEM fields such as biotechnology and the social sciences, women hold only about 26 percent of all science and technology jobs. About 12 percent of engineers are women and only 25 percent of computer scientists and mathematicians are women, according to a 2010 study by the National Science Foundation.

Changing young women’s perceptions of STEM fields

Surveys of young women attending the YWC show that attending the conference helps change their ideas about women and science. The percentage of girls who believe that women are “very good” at science and engineering jumped from 6 percent before the conference to 18 percent after the conference, according to a 2010 survey. The percentage of girls who said they would consider majoring in physical sciences and engineering had a similar bump from 8 percent before the conference to about 13 percent for general science and 18 percent for physical sciences.

Shannon Greco, a program leader in the Science Education Department at PPPL, said it’s important that girls at the YWC meet a wide spectrum of females involved in science —from high school girls trying to recruit new participants for the New Jersey Regional Science Bowl to undergraduate and graduate students and established researchers. “It’s been proven many, many times, that actually seeing a possibility for themselves to be scientists is key,” Greco said. “If they don’t see that, they won’t pursue it, and also if they don’t see it’s interesting and fun, they won’t pursue it.”

At this year’s YWC, young women from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania learned about forensics from female F.B.I. agents, got to touch artificial muscle, and took part in the great “phytoplankton race” in which they tried to build the most buoyant phytoplankton — plants that live in the ocean — and achieve the slowest sinking time.

PPPL’s plasma demonstrations, including the Van De Graaff generator, which made girls’ hair stand on end, were some of the most popular of the 26 hands-on activities.

Stacey Gould, a chemistry teacher at Council Rock High School North in Newtown, Pa., said the conference fights a persistent message about girls in the STEM field. “There’s still a perception by some that girls are not good at math and science,” she said. “I try hard to fight that stereotype but it’s everywhere.”

Seeing various fields of science

That’s why it’s so important for young women to see that science is a viable career and to watch role models in action, Gould said. “ “I love for the girls to see all the fields of science and the women who do them,” she said. “There’s really no limit to what they can do.”

The girls seemed to be getting the message. “It’s really interesting – I’ve learned a lot,” said Grace Xiong, of Community Middle School in West Windsor, after a tour of Guyot Hall. “I’ve learned about the ocean. We learned a lot of different things: About sound, about plasma, and how certain things work – how sound works with music.”

Jacquelyn Cai, an eighth grader at Community Middle School, said she enjoyed the hands-on activities the most. “It gives you a taste of everything,” she said.

A very enthusiastic audience

“They were very, very enthusiastic and they were so into the talk and the exhibits and it was exciting to just watch them learn,” said Deedee Ortiz, the PPPL organizer of the event. 

Lenore Rasmussen, founder of Ras Labs Synthetic Muscle™ for Prosthetics & Automation, showed off small samples of polymers she uses to produce synthetic muscle made of an electroactive polymer. Rasmussen told students that it took a long time for her to get her Ph.D. and then do post-graduate research before going on to get a job and eventually forming her own company. “It’s a tough way but if you love science it’s worth it,” she said.

44 PPPL volunteers

Physicist Angie Capece was one of 44 PPPL volunteers, along with a dozen volunteers from the University, who served in numerous roles ranging from group leaders to exhibitors. Capece said she was impressed by the enthusiasm of the young women at the conference. “The girls ask really great questions and it’s great to see them so excited about some of the demos we have here,” she said. “I think it’s good to give the girls a chance to talk to real scientists and especially female scientists.”

How values shape emerging science and technology

Keynote speaker Jayatri Das of the Franklin Institute gave a presentation entitled, “How values shape emerging science and technology.” She started out asking the girls to think about whether it’s acceptable to use a cell phone in a movie or when they are with a group of friends. Most of the girls said it would be rude to use their cell phones in either case.

“Every time we have a new technology, the rules evolve,” Das told the audience. She noted that last year people traveling by air had to turn off their cell phones during a flight. Now travelers can use cell phones at the beginning and end of flights and on airplane- mode during flights.

Future uses of nanotechnology

Das asked the students to think about several examples of possible future uses of nanotechnology: A space elevator, quantum computing, gold nanoshells that could be used to treat cancer, super-strong military clothing, a “tea bag” water filter, inexpensive and tiny solar panels and fuel cells based on nanotechnology. She asked the girls to choose three technologies for themselves and their families.

“I’d like to have an invisibility cloak and the military clothing — the invisibility cloak because it’s awesome,” said one girl. Another girl chose the nanoshells, the water filter and the military clothing.

“We think about family health,” Das said. “We think about technologies that are cool — who wouldn’t want an invisibility cloak? And we heard about technologies that will help global problems.”

Das then asked the girls to take on the role of various fictiitious characters, including a soldier in Iraq and a pregnant woman with a small business in South Africa, and then make decisions about what technology they would choose. One girl chose the fuel cell, the solar panels and the water filter for the South African small business owner. Another chose the military clothing and the invisibility cloak for the soldier in Iraq.

“There are different values that determine where their priorities would be,” Das said. “As scientists we feel our role is to bring these conversations to light,” she said. “I’m hoping you will all create conversations.”

At the end of the conference, Andrew Zwicker, head of the Science Education Department, urged the girls gathered at Jadwin Gym to continue their interest in science. “I want you all to know how inspiring it is to see you here,” he said. “We want your help to change the world by curing disease or finding a new form of energy.”


U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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