On April 20, girls from area public schools gathered on the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith campus to learn how they can become leaders in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics during a leadership conference hosted by the STEM Education Center at UAFS.


More than 140 students from Fort Smith, Alma, Greenwood, Cedarville, Charleston and Magazine school districts were able to hear from females who work or have worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Marshall Space Flight Center based in Huntsville, Ala.


Julia Miffer, formerly the education manager at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, and Maria Chambers, an education specialist with NASA, spoke to students and led a session on designing a Mars Rover. Students also participated in workshops where they sampled and analyzed DNA and used a 3D printer.


The conference closed with a session on women and leadership and how participants should view leadership as an activity rather than an office. Students also received two complimentary books: “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.


The conference was free and part of a broader effort by the university to involve more females in the STEM fields, according to Jenn Jennings Davis, executive director of the Educational Renewal Zone and STEM Education Center.


“Research shows a significant portion of young girls have a strong interest in STEM fields in elementary school, but when they hit middle school and junior high, that interest plummets,” Jennings Davis said. “It’s questionable on why that happens, but we do know it’s happening. So we see fewer and fewer women pursuing STEM in high school, which leads to fewer pursuing it as a major in college.”


“In the evaluations the young women filled out after the conference, we’re seeing that they are considering careers that they didn’t even know were available to them,” she added. “This experience exposed them to different careers, opportunities and fields of study within STEM, and we hope that we can continue to grow interest in STEM locally and regionally through events like these.”


Funding for the conference was provided by the Arkansas Department of Career Education, with additional support and funding provided by Education Renewal Zone at UAFS.