STEM lunches at VMS expose eighth grade girls to emerging fields

The weekly and bi-weekly events feature female speakers from around the area.

Jaclyn Nyce and Valora Wong, eighth graders at Voorhees Middle School, lead weekly STEM Lunches. The girls-exclusive event features a female speaker who is currently in the science, technology, engineering or mathematics fields.

In 2015, only 24 percent of American STEM jobs were held by women, according to the Economics and Statistics Administration.

Today, during lunch periods at Voorhees Middle School, eighth-grade girls are striving to fix that figure.

The world’s emerging innovation inevitably means emerging jobs — some of which may not even exist yet. To stay ahead of, or perhaps influence, the ever-changing technological landscape, the science department at VMS designates weekly and bi-weekly lunches to firsthand STEM experiences.

“This is where our society is going,” said Cammy Bell, a science teacher at VMS. “(Students) see a lot of common careers, but we want them to specialize in science, technology, engineering and math.”

Bell, along with science teachers Joyce Laurella and Cindy Slawski, lead the lunch initiatives.

Each lunch features a local female speaker who specializes in the STEM field, many of whom are students’ family members or VMS alumni.

From statisticians for the Philadelphia Eagles to scientists manipulating genes in utero, a spectrum of STEM-driven women have presented to VMS girls since the fall.

Encompassing CRISPR scientists to geriatric physicians, the assortment of specialities that have passed through the B14 lab room reflect the perpetual possibilities STEM offers.

Although the lunches kicked off last year, they started gaining popularity in October, which could be attributed to its new student organizers — eighth graders Jaclyn Nyce and Valora Wong.

Dispirited by the lack of women in Nyce and Wong’s aspiring careers, the students were determined to transform these events into alluring lunches for their peers.

“STEM is so important, especially with technology evolving. It influences so much of our daily lives now,” Wong said. “You can find some aspects of science, technology, engineering and math in anything that you do.”

Each week, the students research, contact and book the speakers. After confirmation, Wong and Nyce work on publicizing the lunch by creating fliers and delivering announcements.

“We need more women in the STEM field, so we’re promoting it,” Nyce said. “The careers we’ve had (at the lunches) are not the most common STEM careers that you hear about, so you get the exposure to the more unique opportunities.”

Since eighth graders are already picking out high school classes, the girls say adolescence is an especially important age to introduce girls to these fields.

“I think this is the point where we’re all starting to develop and decide what we want to do,” Wong said. “I think it’s great in middle school to get that background.”

Depending upon the guest, lunch attendance varies from around 10 to 30 girls. While all are welcomed, Nyce and Wong prefer a more intimate setting, so girls get one-on-one interactions with speakers.

“We try to keep it as casual as we can,” Nyce said.

Over the next month, the lunches will include a court stenographer and a researcher working on cancer vaccines — both women who are from around the region.

Along with Voorhees’ close proximity to metropolitan research hubs such as Philadelphia and New York City, the township itself works toward medical forefronts, such as Virtua’s recent announcement of a proton therapy center for cancer research — the first of its kind in South Jersey.

“We’re in a township that has innovative resources that I want to expose them to,” Bell said. “I think our girls need it.”