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District 155 launches pilot STEM mentoring program for girls

CRYSTAL LAKE – Since she was in eighth grade, 17-year-old Mia Zebell knew she wanted to be an engineer.

And although she is a minority in a field dominated by men, it doesn’t bother her.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Zebell, a junior at Crystal Lake Central High School. “I’m one of the three girls in engineering class, and I’m just going for it.”

Through Community High School District 155’s pilot program – Girls in Engineering, Math and Science – Zebell and other students are able to connect with women in the community who have found success in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Kathy Gilbert, STEM division leader at Prairie Ridge High School, was one of the women who saw a need for the program.

GEMS held its first conference in October where 73 sophomores and juniors from all four high schools in the district heard from Gilbert and McHenry County Economic Development Corp. President Pam Cumpata about their experiences entering the workforce.

Students, who had to apply for the program, also met in small groups with female representatives in fields including the medical industry, engineering, banking and information technology, Gilbert said.

After the workshop, Gilbert received feedback from the girls, who wrote comments saying they learned everything from “not everything is going to go as planned” to “be more assertive” to “different ways to balance a family.”

“They really felt encouraged and empowered by talking to these women that have been through what they’re looking at,” Gilbert said.

In her speech, Cumpata said she told girls it’s normal not to follow a straight path to a career.

“I just feel that we need some positive female role models for these young women who will not be afraid to share that it’s OK to not always be perfect,” Cumpata said. 

Jissel Rangel, a 17-year-old junior at Prairie Ridge High School, is one of the students in the GEMS program. She’s looking into the field of psychiatry, she said.

Through the first GEMS event, Rangel said she was able to form relationships with women in the community who can help her enter the medical field.

“This was the first exposure I had to those contacts, especially because my parents are immigrants from Mexico,” Rangel said. “So they don’t know a lot about going to college and especially becoming a doctor.”

Rangel said the stereotype that women should stay at home is part of what blocks girls from entering STEM fields.

Barriers also can include the ambiguity of the fields as well as girls not feeling like they’re capable of succeeding, Gilbert said.

“The increase of women in STEM fields isn’t happening organically,” Gilbert said. “It’s something I think we need to be more intentional about reaching out to women.”

While the first event had a focus on girls talking to professionals about entering their careers and balancing home and work life, the next event will have a computer science focus, Gilbert said. Middle school girls will be joining the event to do hands-on programming and coding, and they will learn from the high school girls.

Gilbert and Cumpata said in coming years, they hope to see an increase of girls enrolled in STEM classes and in leadership positions in the county.

“The work field is run by guys,” Rangel said. “And [GEMS] helps a lot because it shows us the majors that we can pursue to be what we want to be.”

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