Hands popped up immediately, as excitement bubbled over to ask an astronaut, meteorologist or educator a question.
“How do you sleep in space? Is it fun to be on TV? How do I get involved if I’m not an educator?”
For the dozens of budding scientists, mathematicians, engineers and teachers in the audience, the SPC Women2STEM Symposium gave attendees a chance to see their heroes up close. Guest speakers included artist and former astronaut Nicole Stott, television meteorologist Lindsay Milbourne and Pinellas County Schools K-12 STEM Specialist Laura Spence.
“I love that SPC hosts events like this,” said student Ronelia Bailey, who travels from Bradenton to attend SPC. “I wouldn’t get this opportunity anywhere else.”
The symposium drew all ages to SPC’s Clearwater Campus and showcased the accomplishments of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To kick things off, SPC Mathematics Chair Joy Moore introduced herself as an ‘Unhidden Figure’ in reference to the movie “Hidden Figures” and the book it was based on. Both the book and the movie pay homage to three pioneering African-American women in the space program whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space.
“Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson blazed a trail that allows me to be an ‘Unhidden Figure’ today,” Moore said. “I want to thank them for paving the way for me and others and inspiring me.”
Moore re-appeared on stage after the panelists spoke and delivered a stirring rendition of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.”
Finding Inspiration that Creates Opportunity
Each panelist said they were first inspired and encouraged by their parents, and later by those they looked up to.
“I wasn’t sure I could do it, but my mentors encouraged me to apply to the astronaut program,” said Stott, an SPC alumna and veteran astronaut with two spaceflights and 104 days living and working in space on both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). “Most of an astronaut’s job is not in space, but what I was already doing as an engineer. They had the confidence in me when I didn’t necessarily have it in myself.”
During her 28-year career with NASA, Stott performed one spacewalk, was the first person to fly the robotic arm to capture the free flying HTV cargo vehicle, the first person to paint and Tweetup from space in 2009, she was the last crew member to fly to and from their ISS mission on a Space Shuttle, and she was a member of the crew of the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery.
“Find what inspires you and that will create opportunity,” she said.
Inspiration for educator Spence was sparked in middle school when her science teacher unveiled a pig stomach to the class.
“I was fascinated,” said Spence, who has developed hundreds of after-school STEM academies that reach more than 5,000 students in Pinellas County Schools. “I knew right then that I wanted to teach. My goal is to get kids who may not think they’re good at something to be able to do it.”
Facing Challenges in the STEM Fields
But as women in careers traditionally populated by men, the panelists also faced their share of challenges.
As a high schooler, Spence struggled in a math class but was proud of her hard work.
“When my teacher called my grade of “C” I was happy, but his response was ‘That’s good enough for you,’ ” Spence said. “That’s not the way you talk to or inspire your students. I learned to turn my challenges and barriers into successes.”
Milbourne, a Florida State University meteorology graduate who minored in math, has been at FOX 13 since 2012, loves being on television for its daily variety and unpredictable nature.
“There are still a lot more males than females in broadcast meteorology,” said. “A lot of times you’re being judged for what you wear when you don’t hear your male colleagues getting the same criticism.”
Milbourne noted that meteorologists can work for TV and radio stations, consulting businesses, educational facilities and several branches of the federal government including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. military or NASA.
See It, Be It
“I’m really thankful to SPC for hosting this event, where we can thoughtfully share our stories and inspire others,” Stott said. “Girls need to see women doing things – doing things they didn’t think they could. It’s a ‘see it, be it’ kind of thing. Thank you for letting us be here and be an example. This is so important.”
So … about sleeping in space.
“Well, you have to use a sleeping bag, so you start there. Then you have to tether yourself to something so you don’t float away,” Stott said to a chuckle from the crowd. “I always chose the ceiling because where else can you sleep on the ceiling except in space?”