Sciences And Self-Esteem Go Hand-In-Hand At Student Conference

By Jennette Barnes The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Dubbed the "Self-e STEAM" conference, the event focused on two hot topics for teen girls: self-esteem and the embracing of studies in science, technology, engineering, art and math.

NEW BEDFORD

"Come in a like a queen," theater owner and acting coach Lorna Brunelle told a middle-schooler waiting outside a classroom at Our Sisters School.

Each girl in the workshop took a turn walking in, faced a small circle of her peers, announced her name and read a mock script for a television commercial.

One entered to the sounds of a powerful Beyoncé song playing on Brunelle's phone. Some kept their eyes on the script and needed a gentle nudge to look up. All got a confidence boost from her infectious encouragement.

"You were literally radiating positive energy in the room," she told one girl. "I love that about you, so keep sparkling."

The session was just one part of a five-hour conference at Our Sisters School, a private middle school in New Bedford for economically disadvantaged girls. Dubbed the Self-e STEAM conference, the event focused on two hot topics for teen girls: self-esteem and the embracing of studies in science, technology, engineering, art and math.

A group of student leaders played a major role in planning the conference -- developing the idea, meeting over lunch, emailing prospective speakers and keeping track of replies, said arts and STEAM-lab teacher Tobey Eugenio. "It's 100 percent student-driven," she said.

The planning was a learning experience in itself, she said. The girls had to handle real-life situations, such as how to respond when an invited presenter didn't get back to them right away.

On the day of the event, each student had to choose among concurrent workshops, just like at a real conference.

About 10 different topics were offered in three sessions.

In a workshop on computer science, recent college graduate and software engineer Eden Shoshan told the girls how her childhood science interests -- in rain forests, rocks, marine biology, and the brain -- unexpectedly morphed into a career in computer science.

She said her mother asked her how her college studies in neuroscience were going, and her answer was a bland "OK," which led her mom to question if it was the right path. Then, a friend suggested that if she liked Sudoku and logic puzzles, she should try a class in computer programming.

She was hooked. Why? The creativity and the challenge, she said. There wasn't just one way to solve a problem. It was thought-provoking and rewarding. She got to find solutions to complex problems and then turn those solutions into instructions a computer could follow.

"You guys can combine technology with whatever you want," she told the students.

And contrary to her preconceived image of a programmer alone at a computer all day, the process is very collaborative, she said.

The girls got a pep talk on leadership from Melanie Gates, director of secondary education for STEM in the Middleboro public schools. She helped them identify women leaders they admire and talk about what those women have in common.

Gates passed out a survey designed to show the students where their strengths lie among four leadership styles.

They can use those strengths to their advantage and look at the other styles as areas for growth, she said.

The survey was an eye-opener for eighth-grader Taileigh Hull, who said she tended to view leaders as people who were very focused, but her leadership style came out as the "lightning bolt" in the survey -- meaning energetic and fun.

"Sometimes, things that I do I wouldn't really consider being a leader, but it is," she said. "I like to bring fun to the group, and humor."

One way to lead, Gates said, is to walk your talk. "Get in and do what you're asking others to do," she said.

Other sessions addressed the day's topic through a lens of social activism, sailing, nursing, magic tricks, exploring career paths through volunteering and internships, and more.

The school participates in the Jefferson Awards Foundation's Students in Action program, and as part of that, students make a commitment to take action, Eugenio said. They wanted to inspire and empower young women. "We have an 11-hour school day, so we can do a lot of things," she said.

The conference started last year, with school staff serving as workshop presenters. This year, they added outside presenters, and Eugenio said they hope to open it to the community next year, so students from other schools can attend.

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