By Amber Kennedy

Women make up only 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and math, according to the American Association of University Women. But Old Dominion University and Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) hope to change that by teaming to shrink the gender gap in STEM.

On March 19, 140 girls in grades 5 through 8 participated in the first in-person Beach Girls Rock! (BGR!) event at the ODU Virginia Beach Center, where University faculty and students exposed them to potential careers in STEM.

"We know that is an age range in which girls begin to feel intimidated and turn away from those fields before they even get to high school," said Renée Olander, associate vice president for ODU's regional higher education centers. "We are igniting the passion, igniting the fire and letting them see role models, including our women engineers and 20 nursing students who volunteered. They were exposed to so much that will help them imagine their futures."

BGR! is a leadership empowerment series for female students offered by VBCPS since 2013. This was the University's first in-person event for the program.

"This program offers opportunities for leadership collaboration and the exploration of students' passions. This year, we are exploring the idea of 'Hidden Figures: The Power of Possibility and Vision,' which is important for students to explore as it relates to future opportunities," said Sebrina Lindsay-Law '03, who serves as coordinator for equity and opportunity for VBCPS. "We look forward to partnering with Old Dominion University again."

After a rousing welcome from Big Blue and a lesson in ODU's "Ice Cream and Cake" dance, the girls attended fun, interactive sessions on psychology, speech-language pathology, cybersecurity, physics, biology, engineering, nursing and MonarchTeach, which prepares aspiring math and science teachers.

Students competed in a cybersecurity game inspired by Jeopardy!, tried coding and were taught stress-management techniques in a mindfulness workshop. One Salem Middle School student said it was helpful to learn how to relax as she prepares for SOL tests.

A Strawbridge Elementary student enjoyed coding, saying it was "kind of like Morse code in real life."

"When my mom first signed me up, I didn't want to do this, but then I got into coding and I was like, 'This is fun!'" she said.

Participants who chose the nursing-focused sessions toured the facility's state-of-the-art classrooms, including the School of Nursing's high-tech spaces, such as the telehealth room and human simulation and clinical skills labs. The girls learned how infections spread, practiced tying tourniquets and donned stroke suits and glasses to experience medical challenges from a patient's point of view. Each girl left with a stethoscope "to continue to hone their skills," said Lynn Wiles, associate professor of nursing.

Raúl Briceño, an assistant professor of physics, praised the girls' engagement and focus during his session. "I was very much impressed by how sharp and driven these young ladies were," he said. "Despite it being early on a Saturday morning, they were eager to talk about the Big Bang, the formation and evolution of stars, the creation of the building blocks of life and black holes."

ODU students who volunteered at the event were energized by the experience.

"My peers and I had a great time sharing our passion for nursing and interacting with these young community members," said Ariana Montemayor, a nursing student who organized 20 volunteers from the Student Nursing Association. "While volunteering, we had just as much fun as the kids and look forward to future opportunities where we can help inspire the next generation of health care professionals."

The girls were able to see entrepreneurship in action during a keynote address from Isyss Anderson and Faith Jenkins, Virginia Beach high school students who founded Bloom, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the number of Black women in STEM. They have developed a curriculum around planning for the future. The attendees also heard from Taylor Brunke, a recent ODU graduate in nursing.

The collaboration offered a taste of the University experience for students who, for many reasons, may not have considered pursuing higher education.

"Some of these things may not be top-of-mind for these little girls," said Nakia Madry-Smith, director of the ODU Peninsula Center and an organizer of the event. "It's important to expose them to some of these opportunities, show them a university building or a lab, and help them see themselves in the staff and faculty of ODU. They can see the potential of what they can be and what they can do."

She hopes they walked away "with a greater capacity for dreaming."

Organizers are already imagining the possibilities for future BGR! events showcasing all ODU offers to the wider Hampton Roads community.

"The whole day felt like the live-action version of our mission statement," said Corrin Gillis, assistant chair of the Department of Communication Disorders and Special Education in the Darden College of Education and Professional Studies. "We were engaged in our community, trying to inspire an underrepresented group in STEM-H to improve the lives of people in their communities, the commonwealth and the wider world!"

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