Fermilab organizes Hidden Figures STEM program for local students

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“Each of you has a gift, talent or skill. You, too, are a hidden figure,” said Fermilab Chief Financial Officer Vanessa Peoples to middle school students during the opening of a STEM outreach program on Feb. 6.

The Fermilab event featured a screening of the film Hidden Figures, which addresses racial and socioeconomic inequalities faced by young people interested in STEM fields, followed by a Q&A session with scientists and engineers at Fermilab. The goal of the program was to show fifth- to eighth-grade students that entering a STEM field was possible for them – no matter their background.

“The goal was to expose middle school students to STEM and give them an opportunity to explore STEM-related concepts so that they may develop a passion for it and realize that science is for everyone,” said Cara Brown, chairperson of Fermilab’s African American/Black Association, which led the organization of the event.

Three-hundred-thirty students and faculty from 13 schools in surrounding counties attended the event.

Part of the motivation in encouraging the students to pursue STEM careers was to show them role models who overcame similar obstacles to those the students may face.

“We want the students to become familiar with real-life people like the characters portrayed in the movie, and we believe this familiarity will increase their interest in pursuing these achievements,” Brown said. “Hearing the stories of such professionals may help the students know that they don’t have to be scared of pursuing a future in the science or engineering fields. It’s important to provide the opportunity for them to ask questions and interact with professionals here.”

For students such as those from King Middle School in Kankakee, the event was both fun and eye-opening.

“It’s both inspirational and aspirational. Many of our kids can see themselves in the characters, and they may not know about the opportunities that exist in science and technology, so talking to people in those fields gives them a goal to shoot for,” said Rachel Jordan, a teacher at King Middle School who organized the event for her students.

Less than 15 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, math, physics and astronomy are awarded each year to underrepresented minorities, according to the American Physical Society. Students who are underrepresented minorities or are economically disadvantaged may lack exposure to science and guidance from mentors to encourage them to nurture their interest in STEM. The event was aimed at showing students scientists and engineers at Fermilab similar to them, and removing the mystery surrounding their nearby particle physics lab.

“They have limited exposure to places like this because of their background and where they come from,” said Amber O’Mary, a science teacher at KD Waldo Middle School in Aurora. “I was encouraged as a kid to go into science and math, but not everyone is.”

O’Mary asked teachers at her school to select students who showed particular enthusiasm for math or science, even if their grades weren’t perfect, in the hope that the event would further spark their interest in STEM.

After Hidden Figures, students watched a screening of short videos about four scientists and engineers working at Fermilab, followed by a Q&A session with them.

Maurice Ball, Kirsty Duffy, Jessica Esquivel and Karl Warburton made up the diverse panel. They answered questions from the students, discussing how they became interested in and eventually pursued careers in STEM and some of the challenges they faced.

Organizers hope that efforts like these will help students from diverse backgrounds realize that they too can become experts in STEM fields, experts who will someday develop new technologies that aid society and advance our understanding of the universe.