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Agnes Irwin Hosts 2nd Annual STEM Conference
Agnes Irwin Hosts 2nd Annual STEM Conference

2016 Sharing Solutions STEM Conference from The Agnes Irwin School on Vimeo.

As a material scientist, Dr. Ainissa Ramirez understands that most people have no idea what her profession entails, so she offered a demonstration to more than 100 educators and corporate executives gathered for a recent STEM think tank and conference at The Franklin Institute. 

Ramirez held up a wire-like material, a shape memory alloy made of nickel and titanium. She wrapped the alloy around her finger and proceeded to heat it with a small lighter, watching the material unfold. 

“Most metals don’t do that,” said Ramirez, going on to explain the atomic movement brought on by heat that causes the alloy to straighten and the how such materials are commonly used today — in robots to unfurl arms, in the Mars rover to maneuver panels, in orthodontic braces to gently align teeth, in stents to unclog arteries, even in underwire bras. 

Ramirez’s anecdote provided a small window into the wide world of STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — for those gathered at The Agnes Irwin School’s second STEM conference, Sharing Solutions 2016: Advancing Girls in STEM, held Friday, April 15.

The day-long conference, organized and presented by Agnes Irwin’s Center for the Advancement of Girls in partnership with The Franklin Institute, the Philadelphia region’s premier science museum, focused on how to achieve sustainable cultural change that truly supports the success of girls and women in STEM.

The conference drew educators from K-12 and higher education, as well as corporate leaders, for a pair of TED-style talks in the morning and design-thinking work groups in the afternoon to build on three key themes from the inaugural conference in 2015: teacher training and curriculum design, role models and mentors, and partnerships.

A self-proclaimed science evangelist, Ramirez used her keynote address to counsel those gathered in ways to get and keep girls in particular excited about these fields of study and, ultimately, about careers as scientists, engineers, mathematicians and overall innovators. One way is to be sure girls and women know their history.

“The outcome of STEM is to generate creative problem solvers,” said Ramirez, author of Save Our Science: How to Inspire a New Generation of Scientists, noting that society is grappling with lots of major issues — such as clean air and water, renewable energy and more effective medicines — that will need solutions. “STEM is one way to do it. There are other ways to do it. But STEM is a good way, particularly now that we are in this technologically-rich society.”

She added that it is particularly important to teach girls about the history of women in STEM fields, adding that in the 1890s, the majority of students studying in these disciplines — 57 percent — were girls. She mentioned hidden heroes, such as the women involved in the development of America’s space program, the advance of computer programming, and life-saving inventions such as Kevlar, a synthetic fiber used in protective gear such as helmets and bulletproof vests.

“It’s never ability. It’s always society,” said Ramirez, adding that the decline in women’s participation in STEM coincided with the push for more home economics training in American education. “We have a long history. It’s just that it’s hidden. This is one of the things we can do. We can share this history with girls so that they can see that they are not the first. They may feel like they’re the first, but they’re not. There is a long heritage of women doing great work in STEM.”

Frederic Bertley, Senior Vice President of Science and Education at The Franklin Institute, led a TED-style talk on engaging girls in STEM exploration outside of the school setting. Joining him was Chanel Summers, Co-Founder of Syndicate 17, an audio production, technology and design consulting company. 

Claudia Anderson, Vice President of Customer Experience at TE Connectivity, a global technology leader, and Elizabeth McCormack, Associate Provost at Bryn Mawr College, discussed proven solutions used in higher education and the workforce to increase and retain the number of women in STEM fields.

“This has been a fantastic, fantastic day for Agnes Irwin and The Franklin Institute,” said Bertley, calling on participants to take something they had learned during the course of the day and think about how they would apply it in their environment. 

As a prelude to the afternoon workshop, four Agnes Irwin Upper School students were interviewed by WHYY Radio Senior Health Writer Taunya English as part of a panel discussion about the influences that have affected their interest, or disinterest, in STEM fields.

“We hope you feel energized and charged, and equipped with some new tools for your own learning, for your work with your students, for all the different types of work that you do,” Dr. Natalie Nixon, Director of the Strategic Design MBA Program at Philadelphia University, told the audience at the conclusion of the design-thinking workshops.


Photo captions:

  • Top:  Dr. Ainissa Ramirez holds up an alloy during her address at Sharing Solutions on April 15.
  • Second: About 100 participants gathered at The Franklin Institute on April 15 for Sharing Solutions: Advancing Girls in STEM. 
  • Third: Attendees participated in a variety of group discussions and activities.
  • Fourth: Agnes Irwin third grade teacher Kim Walker presents an idea from the design challenge.
  • Fifth: A panel of Agnes Irwin students share their experiences with STEM.