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'State of STEM' Event Focuses on Women in Science

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On Wednesday, fast on the heels of when President Obama called for "pushing out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay," in the State of the Union address, 130 students gathered in Washington for the third annual State of STEM event.

The event gave students an opportunity to hear from a variety of STEM experts, including U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and Office of Science and Technology Policy Associate Director Jo Handelsman. Students were also given the opportunity to ask questions of a trio of astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station.

Though all of the speakers emphasized the importance of STEM in coming years--Bolden described the students in audience as future visitors to Mars--several focused on girls and women in particular. Smith called out the entertainment industry's depictions of scientists as white men, despite the fact that women have long been involved in science. She cited the relative lack of clear role models for girls and students of color as a reason many are hesitant to go into the field.

Similarly, Handelsman described the bias against female scientists that she often sees in the community: "People have seen boys and men as scientists. The history of science is filled of them. You look at the textbooks, you see all these men who were great scientists. But it turns out girls and women can be just as great."

The event also included an all-female panel, where several women were given the chance to talk about their experience in STEM, both specifically as women and as scientists more generally. Though some of the women noted that they had felt singled out because of their gender, climate scientist Nicole Hernandez Hammer told students that difference isn't always a negative characteristic: "When you're a bit different from the other people in the room, you should look at it as an opportunity to bring a different perspective from the others, and that helps science move forward."

In response to a question from a young girl asking what steps to take in order to be "just like you," Handelsman encouraged the students in the audience to dream big: "I hope you're not just like me. I hope you're way, way better."

Image:  Barry "Butch" Wilmore, Terry Virts, and Samantha Cristoforetti talk with students from the International Space Station. Image via YouTube.

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