High school girls get introduction to STEM in Westinghouse program
Greensburg Salem sophomore Kara Uhlinger worked with other high school girls Wednesday in a mock training session requiring them to create a device — using tape, wood slats, paperclips, plastic cups and a lot of ingenuity — to retrieve an item left inside a simulated nuclear power reactor.
Uhlinger and about 20 girls from nine high schools in Allegheny, Fayette and Westmoreland counties were participating in Westinghouse Electric Co.'s Introduce a Girl to Engineering program at the company's Waltz Mill nuclear power service center in Sewickley Township.
The program, designed to encourage young girls to consider a career in engineering, will offer a similar training session and career discussion Thursday for about 20 girls from nine other schools.
This is the 14th year that Westinghouse has offered the program. It plans to expand it to its plants outside Western Pennsylvania, spokeswoman Denise Hughes said.
The company also had high school girls tour its Churchill energy center and its Cranberry headquarters, where they saw a simulated nuclear power plant, she said.
The goal is to increase the number of women entering the STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields.
Women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce, with the greatest disparities occurring in engineering, computer science and the physical sciences, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project, a Seattle nonprofit that encourages girls to pursue careers in STEM fields. Women comprise only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce, even though about half of the college-educated workforce is female, the group reports.
At Westinghouse, women account for only about 15 percent of the engineering workforce, Hughes said. That percentage mirrors national statistics, according to the collaborative project.
But those numbers are better than the 1 percent of women who were engineers in the 1960s, when Westinghouse engineer Sheri Bleshner was growing up in the Alle-Kiski Valley.
“It was either teacher or nurse” for women back then, said Bleshner, the daughter of an engineer for what was then Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corp. High school guidance counselors weren't steering girls toward engineering, she said.
STEM teachers involved with the Westinghouse program said they are seeing more girls in their classes over the past several years.
“I have seen the interest growing,” said James Pettinger, coordinator for Gateway School District's gifted program in math and science.
Uhlinger, who picks math as a favorite subject and is considering a career in biomedical engineering, is part of a trend of more girls taking science courses, said her teacher, Rosemarie O'Neill.
“We see girls taking science courses all four years. We have more girls than guys,” said O'Neill, Greensburg Salem's gifted coordinator and biology teacher.
Belle Vernon Area chemistry teacher Amber Null said she too has seen a spike in interest in science courses among girls, and many are taking more than the required courses to graduate.
For those girls who decide to enter a male-dominated field such as engineering, they have to be willing to speak up to be heard, said Cherie Paugh, a mechanical engineer for Westinghouse.
When she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in 2010, there were only two other women in her engineering classes, she said.
“A big thing is letting the girls know not to be intimidated entering what is a male-dominated field,” Paugh said.
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.