Women hold less than 25 percent of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) jobs. But one local group, the All Girls STEM Society, is determined to change that by inspiring and encouraging young girls to explore the field through hands-on workshops.
The society’s founders are intelligent, passionate, driven — and still sophomores in high school: Veronica Tang, 14, who attends The Bishop’s School, and Eleni Fafoutis, 15, from Mission Viejo who attends Santa Margarita Catholic School.
The All Girls STEM Society will hold its first free technology workshop for girls in third through eighth grade from 1:30-4 p.m. Aug. 30 at the Carmel Valley Library. Girls will learn fun, basic HTML programming and develop their own websites.
The teens filled all 25 spaces in their workshop in two days, and they now have a waiting list.
Veronica and Eleni, who live more than an hour apart, first met at a Concordia University math summer camp.
“We had similar interests and similar points of view, so we became fast friends,” Veronica said. “We were both very nerdy and appreciated each other’s sense of humor.”
Veronica said she has been a feminist since the second grade, when she learned about Queen Elizabeth I. When she participated in the San Diego Math Circle’s American Regions Math League competition, she was disappointed to see that of the 60 participants, only six were girls.
“I felt bad that there were only six girls,” Veronica said. “That really made me upset that there aren’t a lot of opportunities for girls in STEM.”
In May, the two girls helped put on an inspiring All-Girls Math Tournament in collaboration with Math For Service at the Carmel Valley Library. Thirty girls in grades three through eight, representing five school districts, competed in a fun yet challenging math tournament.
The All Girls STEM Society was the follow-up to the math tournament as the girls challenged themselves to strike out on their own. To plan and build their growing organization, their supportive parents drive them to meet halfway at Starbucks and Panera Bread restaurants — the caffeinated teens working on ways to share their passions with the younger set.
Eleni’s biggest STEM interest is in rocketry. She loves building rockets and participating in competitions like Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC), where she was a two-time national finalist. Eleni was also extremely successful at the 2015 Orange County Science and Engineering Fair for her project on predicting and analyzing coronal mass ejections.
She won second place in the senior division in physics and astronomy, and special awards from the U.S. Air Force, the American Vacuum Society for her work on developing the image processing in the high-level computing language MATLAB, and a Naval Science Award from the U.S. Department of the Navy, Office of Naval Research.
Veronica is most interested in mathematics, robotics and computer science, especially coding and programming.
“I love coding — coding is my life,” said Veronica, who spent the summer coding Android apps. “What I love about programming is the logic … There’s always a better algorithm.”
She spent the past four weeks attending COSMOS (California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science) at UC San Diego and recently became very interested in physics, as has Eleni.
All Girls STEM Society workshops are tentatively scheduled through early 2016, including a math workshop on Nov. 8, an aerospace workshop on Jan. 31 and a robotics/engineering workshop on March 26.
The teens hope to wrap up the year’s worth of workshops with a STEM competition for the girls to show off what they have absorbed.
Both girls credit supportive parents for stoking their interest in science when they were younger. They played with electronics kits rather than Barbie dolls, and were given room to excel in their schools. But they know not everyone gets the same opportunities and encouragement.
Even if girls do choose to enter fields like science, physics or engineering, said Eleni, when they get to college they might find they are the only woman in the classroom.
“They may feel uncomfortable in that environment and choose to go elsewhere,” Eleni said. “Our philosophy is to make sure that girls don’t feel that way about science. We want them to expand on their interests, and grow and fall in love with these subjects, and find the confidence they always had.”
Eleni and Veronica have found their confidence and are aiming for careers in engineering, aerospace and biomedical science or computer science, and electrical engineering, respectively. Their journeys have been successful and they want to help other girls pursue the same goals and break barriers.
“We really want to get our name out there and develop a ‘fan base’ of girls who will show up and come to support our events,” Eleni said. “We hope to expand everywhere in between San Diego and Mission Viejo.”
To learn more or register for upcoming workshops, visit allgirlsstemsociety.org.