Blogs  |  5.12.2022

Igniting a Passion for STEM in Girls: Coffee Chat Recap

Challenger Center

As part of our Women’s History Month celebration, Challenger Center partnered with AstraFemina to host experts and changemakers Dr. Ashley Moore Williams, Teresa Drew, and Dr. Carla Guzzardo to speak about engaging more girls in STEM. The discussion was moderated by Valerie Fitton-Kane, Challenger Center’s Vice President of Development, Partnerships, and Strategy, and focused on the experiences of women in the STEM workforce and how we can better encourage girls to pursue their passions.

The event kicked off with each speaker recounting the “spark” in their youths – that moment they felt inspired and ready to engage with STEM. For Carla, a Challenger Center alumna, that moment was a visit to the Marshall Space Flight Center on a family road trip when she was seven years old. “I can still see that moment so clearly. Marshall Space Flight Center was showing ‘Hail Columbia!’ and they showed liftoff. There was a rumble in our seats and my chest, and I was sold. I wanted to be part of that. That was the moment my passion picked me.” As Carla grew up, she wanted to feel that fascination again and be in aerospace. “I didn’t know what engineering was,” she recounted, “I didn’t know the steps to get there. It took time and a visit to a Challenger Learning Center to understand what those steps were and see that this was a viable path.” Today, Carla is a Systems Engineer at Blue Origin.

For Ashley, who began her career as an aerospace engineer and now leads a modeling and simulation group for a research and development project at Apple, one of the moments she realized her passion for STEM was during a high school theater rehearsal. “I was on stage rehearsing something, and I was anxious to get my part done so I could get off stage and go do my math homework. Because when I was doing math, the world just faded away. I was so at peace.” Like Carla, Ashley shared: “I didn’t know how I would make math part of my life or make a career out of doing math, but that was it for me.”

Teresa, who serves as the Deputy Director of the STEM Next Opportunity Fund and leads the Million Girls Moonshot, shared how her path to STEM and education differed from Carla’s and Ashley’s. Growing up in a rural mountain town, she didn’t see many people in STEM careers. In college, she struggled with her chemistry and calculus classes. “Nobody was encouraging me or telling me I could do it. So I pivoted to education. Which turned out to be amazing because I went into education, then advocacy, then community organization efforts, and then back into the STEM education space. Because what I want is for girls to have the opposite experience as mine, and more experiences like Ashley and Carla.”

The panel also discussed the ups and downs women face while pursuing a STEM education and career path, including the challenges of entering the workforce. They talked about the lack of women present on interview panels and the lack of women in candidate pools.

Throughout the event, Valerie sprinkled in questions from the audience. One focused on how men can better support women in the workforce. While there are available resources and training, Teresa shared that it starts at a young age. Children need to see equity and inclusivity in their educational spaces and how they work together to solve problems relevant to their lives and experiences. “If we keep focusing on creating equitable learning spaces at a young age, then by the time those children are in the workforce, it’ll look a lot different than it does today.”

The importance of encouragement and role models became a theme throughout the event. From discussing strategies for engaging girls in STEM to championing them throughout their careers, the conversation always returned to encouragement. “We need role models to show girls: Here’s what you can do with what you love,” said Valerie. Ashley added: “We’re also showing girls that they don’t have to change who they are to succeed in STEM. They can be successful as themselves.”

The event also showcased the power and reach of Challenger Center’s network. Carla pointed out audience member and astronaut John Grunsfeld as a role model in her life. Also present were friends, supporters, and students from across the U.S., Europe, and India.

Carla, Ashley, and Teresa are incredible role models and leaders, and Challenger Center is so proud to work with them as we inspire a love of STEM in every student.

We invite you to join future events like our Igniting a Passion for STEM in Girls discussion! Be the first to find out about these events by subscribing to our newsletter.