SVLG Mentors Illuminate STEM Pathways for Local Girls

When a tiny light went on at a table in the lunchroom at ACE Academy, cheers erupted from a group of girls working on an electronics project made up of tiny metal parts pinned to a foam block. Debbie Andres, one of three volunteers from SVLG member companies guiding groups of middle school girls through the project as part of the 2021 Young Leaders Forum, leaned in as she coached each girl, then went around to other tables to help other groups. 

As a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) graduate, Andres, who leads the San Jose State University Office of Sustainability, is passionate about opening up these fields to new generations of students.

“I think it’s important to show girls that people that look like them can grow up to be engineers and that it’s fun, and it’s interesting, and that they can understand it,” Andres said. “I think it’s important to show them representation, and that anything is doable,” she added. 

Sponsored by Alaska Airlines, BYD (Bring Your Dreams) and NASA, the Young Leaders Series has served thousands of historically underrepresented students in grades 6-8 at the Young Women’s and Young Men’s Leadership Forums since 2008. 

The key purpose of the Forum is to empower, encourage, and expose students to the breadth of opportunities available to them through education, with a special focus on STEM and the variety of careers facilitated through STEM education.

With this year’s focus on young women, the forum was mostly virtual, with more than 200 students tuning in from different schools around the Bay Area. Guest speakers shared stories of how they overcame adversity to enter STEM fields and encouraged participants to explore these types of careers.

Andres was joined by Elizabeth Ward, Senior Legal Director at Netapp, a cloud data management company, and Stacy Owen, General Manager of NBC Bay Area and Telemundo 48, at the event, which paralleled simultaneous activities at other schools around the Bay Area. 

Ward is keenly aware of having been steered away from science as a young woman—she was told in high school that STEM classes weren’t right for her. 

“I remember in high school being told, ‘those classes are probably too hard for you.’ So I didn’t take physics and I didn’t take upper level chemistry,” Ward said, noting that she later found it a challenge to keep up in college chemistry because she had been held back in high school. She ended up earning her JD from Louisiana State University, and now she’s Senior Legal Director at Netapp, a cloud data management company based in Sunnyvale. But she still thinks about those STEM classes she missed out on in high school, and feels strongly about providing avenues to STEM careers for young women.

“These activities are so important for so many reasons,” Ward said of the YLF STEM activity. “Top of mind for me is that they drive curiosity and that they open the doors for girls to see areas of study and subjects that they may not otherwise have seen. They provide hands-on opportunities to help them be inspired with their education,” she said.

After wowing the room of middle schoolers with a description of her job and the reporters she works with, Stacy Owen, who is an SVLG Board Member, also expressed her support for STEM activities for groups like those organized by the Young Leaders’ Forum. 

“The importance of activities like this is to show girls and women that there’s nothing they can’t do, and that you push yourself out of your comfort zone a little bit, try something new, and it might put you on a path that you never expected,” said Owen.

The SVLG mentors each enthusiastically coached groups of about five girls, and for about 45 minutes, the students made their way through the intricacies of their individually packaged electronics activity kits. With confusion giving way to discovery, the mechanisms started to take shape in the hands of girl after girl. As the tiny lights went on in the hands, their faces lit up as well. 

“If there was any message I would want somebody to know, it’s to go and try stuff,” Ward said. “It’s ok if you don’t make an A. Go try it, and see if you like it.”