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Women of all ages explore STEM possibilities

Angela Popenhagen of Stevens Engineers shared her story about being a woman engineer. She is an annual participant in the Women in STEM event. Submitted photos1 / 3
Barb Scott of the Wisconsin DNR, left, and Hudson High School agri-science teacher Cindy Landers, center, help Nina Hansen, River Falls Westside ELementary kindergartener, search for a data chip implanted in a fish .2 / 3
With the assistance of Karen Schreiber, co-owner of Plantables, Haylee Schone of Glenwood City creates a Bee Bomb at the Plantables exhibit. Submitted photo3 / 3

The Hudson School District’s 2016 Women in STEM Night was a success by any standard.

More than 400 students from 35 regional schools from throughout the St. Croix Valley and beyond participated in the annual event.

According to Melisa Hansen, Hudson’s career and technical education coordinator, 65 percent of those attending were coming for the first time. Students ranged in age from pre-K through 12th grade with 58 percent from the elementary level to 42 percent secondary students.       The students were drawn to some 70 exhibits presented by more than 50 different business/industry professionals and organizations as well as area post-secondary schools.

One hundred percent of the students who completed an exit survey said the event helped them understand more opportunities in STEM fields.  Comments from the students about the event included:

-- It helped me to have a deeper understanding of the different careers in the STEM+ field

-- It showed me that there are way more careers in STEM+ than I thought!

-- It made me feel like STEM+ is very unique and deserves more attention.

-- This event showed me that it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. Be who you want and don’t let anything stand in your way.

Participants also commented about the number of women exhibitors at the event and the career options they presented:

-- Seeing all the women working gave me confidence that I could get a job in a STEM related field.

-- It gave me insight into what it would be like if I chose to pursue certain careers

-- It gave me an opportunity to explore careers where I can use my skills and talents.

-- I was able to experience many different things that I put on a mental list for jobs to look for in the future

-- This event reinforced my interested in math and science.

-- It helped me realize that I want to be an engineer.

Presenters as impressed as students

Medtronic employee Sheetal Rajagopal said, “It is so important for girls to see successful women in STEM+ careers as young and as consistently as possible. It is up to each and every one of us to change cultural norms around females in STEM+ for our daughters and for society at large. Imagine all the world’s problems that could have been solved by girls who didn’t study or pursue STEM+ careers because they were worried about being stereotyped.”

Hudson engineer Angela Popenhagen has participated in the event since it  began and she is a believer.

“...From 1979 to 2015, the percentage of women graduating in civil engineering has increased from 9 percent to over 20 percent which suggests that the outreach within universities, high schools and professional organization is working. However, about 40 percent of those engineering graduates never entered the profession after graduation. So, only about 11 percent of all engineers are women.  Therefore, this event provides an opportunity for woman role models to connect with girls.

“It is only human nature to surround yourself with similar people in a comfortable situation. By only having girls, it is a comfort zone and encourages girls to support each other within these STEM professions. When you’re only part of the 11 percent, it gets overwhelming to make those positive connections. We hope that our brief time with these girls will give them the confidence to continue their exposure to all of the possibilities.”

UW-River Falls professor of physics and Women’s and Gender Studies Rellen Hardtke said, "We need our best minds and hearts working on STEM questions. Research shows that girls too often receive messages, often unintentionally but powerful nonetheless, that they aren't likely to succeed in STEM fields. Nothing could be further from the truth. We need to change the messages that girls receive about their abilities and about how enjoyable STEM work can be."

“Xcel Energy is committed to helping kids succeed by exposing youth to new experiences, educational opportunities and careers,” said Brian Elwood, manager, community relations, Xcel Energy. “Highly educated and trained employees are important to Xcel Energy’s future workforce demands and the economic health of the communities we serve. We’re working harder than ever to recruit the best available talent in the STEM fields that are critical to keeping our operations running smoothly. In addition, we have a variety of internship and apprenticeship programs that help train student engineers into careers with our company.”

Last year, the Xcel Energy Foundation gave over $1.2 million in focus area grants for STEM education. 

Theresa Maahs, PE, LEED AP, a project manager for  Stantec said, “Girls are exposed to plenty of stereotypes and obstacles that can plant doubt in their minds about what’s possible. As both a mother and engineer, I participate in the STEM events to engage girls and encourage exploration before doubt takes root and throws them off track.“

Added Jeff Mutschler of Microsoft: “As a father of two daughters and a person that works in high tech and lives in the community I have many reasons to be involved but mostly I would women not to limit their career options. So many women can bring a lot to technical fields and companies like mine are fighting to attract them. We want to encourage more young women to think wide about career options and in the end it will be better for the community I live in and and my company Microsoft.”

Informaton about STEM in the Hudson School District can be found on Twitter at Hudson Women in STEM@hudsonwis, on Facebook at Hudson Women in STEM,, on 

Instagram at Hudson WIS+@hudsonwomeninstem,

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

(715) 808-8604