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'They need to know it's possible' | Y-12 introduces teenage girls to careers in STEM

For a decade, Y-12 has made it a priority to get more women in the STEM field and their efforts are working.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — Hundreds of teenage girls visited Y-12 to explore careers in STEM, and hopefully spark a career interest. 

The annual event is an effort to teach middle and high schoolers all the possibilities in the workforce, as it relates to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Over 500 girls poured into the New Hope Center at Y-12 Thursday to get a glimpse at different careers in engineering, hear from guest speakers and explore experiments.

It was a field trip for many of them, but Y-12 hopes the effort encourages more young girls to embrace their love for STEM.

Lela Fine saw herself in every girl who walked by her booth at the event.

"I've loved science ever since I was really little," Fine said.

Fine knows exactly how the girls are feeling as they try and navigate what their future would look like because she once stood in their shoes.

Her day job now is something she could only dream of doing when she was in high school. She is now a chemical engineer with Y-12 and discovered her love of the field at the "Introduce a Girl to Engineering" event six years ago.

"It's really surreal," Fine said. "I was on the other end of the table, I didn't know what I wanted to do, and now I'm here and I'm doing science and it's really cool.

That's the exact outcome Y-12 wants.

"It is an opportunity for them to see the world of opportunity that is out there," Y-12's Deputy Site Manager Amy Wilson said. "We want them to finish school and come back." 

It's important to Susan Kozemko, who is the senior director of Y-12 engineering, and the keynote speaker at the event, to pour into girls from an early age.

To her, it's all about planting the seed and watching it grow.

"I think it's very important that they can come here, start exploring some of the booths and exercises that are offered so that they open their possibility to a career in STEM," Kozemko said.

Whether it's creating a marshmallow cannon, or building a LEGO bridge, with every activity, the teens, like Shelby Martson, were able to experiment and explore their future.

"It takes a lot of intelligence and effort to do this, and just to make things work and use their purpose," Martson said.

The Blount County eighth grader doesn't quite know what she wants to do with her career yet but she loves science.

"To pursue my dream, I don't have it right now, but I know that I will get the aspiration and I know that I'll be able to pursue it," Martson said.

Adding more women in a field filled with mostly men is an ever-present effort, and one Y-12 knows will pay off.

For Fine, it's a full-circle moment she knows is STEM powered.

"I didn't really see many women in science when I was growing up," Fine said. "If someone looks at a woman in a STEM field, she's like, 'I can do that.'"

The event was part of a week-long celebration of engineers.

Y-12 said this year's field trip was the biggest yet, and the first one back in person since the pandemic.


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