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I AM STEM competition empowers students to inspire the next generation of scientists

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15 February 2019
Jennifer Miller, winner of the 2018 I AM STEM competition, delivers her keynote address to attendees of the annual ENVISION: STEM Career Day for Young Women event in January 2019. Credit: Kai Jiang
Jennifer Miller, winner of the 2018 I AM STEM competition, delivers her keynote address to attendees of the annual ENVISION: STEM Career Day for Young Women event in January 2019. Credit: Kai Jiang

On a cold Saturday in January, Jennifer Miller stood in front of an auditorium of almost 150 middle and high school girls, telling them a story about lasers and quantum dots. The girls had come to Penn State’s University Park campus from all over the mid-Atlantic region for the ENVISION: STEM Career Day for Young Women event, which is hosted annually by the Eberly College of Science’s Office of Science Outreach. The ENVISION event opens each year with keynote speakers who inspire attendees by sharing about their own journeys into STEM, and Jennifer — a chemistry graduate student in the Keating group — earned her spot as a keynote speaker by winning the second annual I AM STEM competition in the fall of 2018. “I was really glad that I had the opportunity to do this,” Jennifer said. “And I also just feel really humbled, because I remember being in their shoes and being nervous about the future, so getting to stand on this side of the picture and share some of my journey was really special.”

The I AM STEM competition was founded in 2017 by the Office of Science Outreach as a way to provide science students with the opportunity to develop their speaking skills and gain confidence in their ability to inspire the next generation of scientists. “We recruit keynote speakers for ENVISION every year,” said Jessica Kim-Schmid, director of the Office of Science Outreach, “and though we’ve had some amazing speakers from beyond Penn State, we realized that we work with so many phenomenal science students with incredible stories right here on campus. How could we miss out on this opportunity to cultivate excellent speakers from our student body and get them in front of an audience that really needs to hear from them?”

The annual competition takes place each fall, with first-round entries consisting of a 60-second introductory video and a 500-word written response due in mid-October. A panel of faculty, staff, and administrators from across the Eberly College of Science evaluates the submissions and selects the top 10 students to advance to the second round. In the second round, finalists are challenged to prepare a 5–6 minute “mini-keynote,” in which they incorporate the core elements of their journey into STEM and advice to future STEM students in a short, cohesive, and compelling talk. The finalists then deliver their mini-keynotes in person for another panel of judges as well as their fellow finalists.

Along with providing a communication-development opportunity for Penn State science students, another goal of the I AM STEM competition is to identify Penn State students who can effectively stimulate and encourage young women’s interest in STEM. Laura Krause, a senior biology major who placed third in the 2018 competition and also gave a keynote talk at ENVISION, started her talk by asking girls to reframe the perennial “What do I want to be when I grow up?” question as a more useful one: “What aspects of a job do I love so much that I want to engage with them every day?”

Laura shared how she used this reframed question to orient her school and career decisions around an evolving “Things I Love” list, which served as a valuable checklist for evaluating different college and career options. “It’s important to follow what you are really passionate about,” Laura explained after her talk. “There are people in my classes who are not happy with what they’re studying and are there for all the wrong reasons, so I hope to help steer these girls away from making that mistake.” After ENVISION, event volunteers shared how girls had started talking about STEM careers in the context of their own “Things I Love” lists throughout the day, which illustrates how quickly the stories from Penn State student speakers like Laura can influence how younger students think about their own futures.

Both Laura and Jennifer came into the I AM STEM competition with a strong passion for sharing their experiences in order to inspire and inform others, and based on their positive experiences with I AM STEM, they encourage other students with a similar passion to participate in future iterations of the competition.

“We each have our own stories to tell, and it’s so important that those stories get shared,” said Jennifer. “What I shared may reach some, but what other students have to share could reach and inspire an entirely different group of people.”

Laura emphasized the value that participating in I AM STEM can have not only for the audience but also for the students who compete. “Participating in I AM STEM allows you to really explore your own past and identify what was important to getting you to where you are today,” she said. “If you can then use that to help inspire others, it’s a great way to give back.”

Details about the 2019 I AM STEM competition will be announced in September, and all interested undergraduate and graduate students in the Eberly College of Science are encouraged to enter. More information can be found at bit.ly/IAMSTEM.

 

[ Jessica Kim-Schmid ]

 

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