Local leads the way for women in STEM at Our Lady of Peace
As the head of school for Academy of Our Lady of Peace, Carmel Valley’s Lauren Lek is preparing 750 young women for the future, carrying on the 134-year-old school’s legacy of educating the next generation of women leaders and innovators; helping them find their voice and compete at all levels regardless of what their career and aspirations might be.
Lek is a champion of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs for young women, including the recent build-out of the first virtual reality space of its kind in an all-girls school or of any school in San Diego County with its new zSpace laboratory.
Lek has brought much more to the school than just the state-of-the-art zSpace lab — she works hard to nurture girls in STEM and ensure that young women are provided with exposure to strong women mentors and champions in all fields.
“OLP is my first exposure to the power of an all-girls environment,” said Lek. “Society loves to play up the myths of all-girls school but the reality is so different…Girls here are authentically themselves, they are able to enjoy learning and leadership. For these four years there’s no pressure from boys, the opportunity to explore new things. They gain confidence and courage and really develop here.”
Lek has been the head of school at OLP for the last four years. Before coming to OLA, she was the principal at the co-educational Moreau Catholic High School, her alma-mater in Hayward, Calif.
Her educational background isn’t rooted in STEM but in English — she attended UC San Diego for her undergraduate degree in literatures of the world and received her master’s degree in educational leadership from St. Mary’s College.
While serving as the assistant principal of instruction at Moreau, she oversaw the school’s first 1:1 laptop deployment and that was when she really started to explore the role of technology as a learning tool. She went back to school at Pepperdine University and got her doctorate in educational technology leadership.
“It’s become a passion point for me to learn and understand how technology can be integrated with learning,” Lek said.
“When I came to OLP, the school already had an amazing reputation as a center of excellence for young women but it was not integrated in the subjects like technology, science and computer science. They were fairly siloed,” Lek said.
Over the last few years, the school went through a lot of professional development with teachers and worked on integration of subjects and adding classes, such as engineering and increased math options.
She coordinated the STEM Certificate program, added AP computer science, bio-technology, entrepreneurship, orchestra, architecture and engineering design, and built the school’s Makers Engineering Space.
OLP also launched the only all-girls competitive robotics team, the MicroChicks, which received a grant from the National Defense Education Program and is sponsored by Qualcomm.
The new virtual reality zSpace lab has limitless applications, allowing students to learn visually and interact with a catalogue of course materials from anatomy, ecosystems, botany, physics, earth science, biochemistry, geography and history.
Students wear special glasses and a stylus to manipulate 3-D graphics on a screen. They can also work in groups and witness the same imagery as long as they are wearing the glasses.
“They can do a 3-D dissection of a heart or the entire living body. At the high school level, no student has access to those types of experiences,” said Lek, noting the technology can also whisk students away to the Louvre or the Taj Mahal. “Today, students are challenged to compete on a global scale and be adept at leveraging rapidly changing technologies. At OLP, we are thrilled to place these new tools in the hands of our remarkable students,” Lek said.
As an advocate for women in leadership, Lek also created the OLP Women’s Symposium, providing the students with exposure and access to leaders in the field.
The third annual Women’s Symposium will be held this year on Friday, March 31 and features leaders not just in STEM but in healthcare, arts, business and entrepreneurship.
“Through dialogue and modeling, these female leaders empower young women to stand up for themselves and fearlessly chase their dreams,” Lek said.
In the hub she has created, women have an opportunity to network and be together — Lek said it’s amazing to see a community leader sitting next to high school and middle school students and all of them learning about the same opportunities together.
The best compliment Lek received was from one of the women professionals who said the $50 symposium (which includes breakfast, lunch and the speakers) was better than a $500 conference.
Lek’s approach to stimulate STEM minds at OLP is working — the number of school graduates heading into STEM fields has skyrocketed. The national average for co-ed graduates pursuing STEM careers is 16 percent. At OLP last year, 40 percent of graduates chose to pursue STEM.
“Our girls are really thriving in those areas,” Lek said.
In San Diego, Lek has been recognized for her work by Athena, founded by District 1 City Councilmember Barbara Bry to support the advancement of women in the STEM-related industries. In 2016, Lek won Athena’s Pinnacle Award for best in the education field.
“It was a very humbling experience and one of the most special awards I’d ever received because of what Athena stands for,” Lek said. “The Pinnacle means the top of your career. I’m humbled to receive this at 37 years old and I just feel like I have so much more; the award is acknowledging what I’ve done and honoring what is yet to come.
As the leader, I want to ensure that at OLP all of us are ever restless in not settling for what was done, but searching for what our girls will need for today and tomorrow. In our rapidly changing world, that need for evolution in pursuit of excellence is always shifting.”
In March, Lek served as the keynote speaker at the San Diego Diplomacy Council’s Celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls, which featured 33 dignitaries from 16 different countries discussing the role that law plays in protecting women’s rights, domestically and abroad.
Lek was proud to bring OLP senior Daniella Gomez-Ochoa to the celebration, as she represents everything Lek is trying to achieve at the school.
Daniella, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico who lives in the Mira Mesa area with her grandmother, will attend Harvard University in the fall. A first-generation college student in her family, she plans to study neurobiology.
At the San Diego Diplomacy Council event, Daniella shared how grateful she was that her family sacrificed so much for her education and said she is carrying on for others who are just as smart as she is but didn’t have the same opportunities. She gave the example of her grandmother, who aspired to be a nurse but was pulled from secondary school to work at a store so she could start saving money for her dowry. When Daniella was feeling anxious about writing her admissions essay, her grandmother gave her the push she needed, saying: “I want you to have the same opportunities as a man, and you should have them.”
“She is a woman who will transform this world,” Lek said of Daniella. “She is an example of what can happen when a young girl is told ‘You can achieve this.’ Look out. Because she will.”
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