STEM camp prepares young women for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics with focus on climate change 

The week-long program hosted by the Exelon Foundation was attended by more than 60 girls from across the area, including students of GAMP.

Philadelphia’s inaugural STEM Innovation Leadership Academy, a week-long camp hosted by the Exelon Foundation through its commitment to the United Nations HeForShe initiative, was hosted from July 21-26 at Drexel University. Above: Staff member Emma Mendez, GAMP student Khaliyah White, GAMP student Aaliyah White, Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter student Yasmin Brown and staff member Brittany Mack.
(Grace Maiorano/SPR)

Groups of teenage girls recently ventured around Drexel University, generating ideas that could germinate well beyond the campus – or even their generation.

Approaching different buildings, the budding researchers spent the last week of July accessing ways the college’s facilities could increase energy efficiency.

The Energy Innovation Challenge was just one assignment comprising Philadelphia’s inaugural STEM Innovation Leadership Academy, a week-long camp hosted by the Exelon Foundation through its commitment to the United Nations HeForShe initiative. The solidarity campaign founded in 2014 encourages men to serve as agents for gender equality across the globe.

Drawing more than 60 girls from the Philadelphia region, including students of the Girard Academic Music Program, dozens of 16- to 19-year-old young women convened at Drexel from July 21-26 to champion their own movement toward gender equality – preparing for careers in the science, technology and engineering fields.  

“Part of the commitment to the HeForShe was to make a financial commitment to the issues around gender equality,” said Michael ​​Innocenzo, president of PECO, a subsidiary company of Exelon. “And so, for Exelon it made sense for us to sponsor the STEM Academy because it aligned with both our values around gender equality and diversity and inclusion but also obviously, as an energy company, our focus on energy, STEM education, climate change – all the things we think are really important. So, it was a nice marriage on focusing on gender equality but also aligning with our business goals of technology and science.” 

The STEM Academy is part of Exelon’s three-year, $3 million investment to promote young women’s participation in the STEM fields. In 2018, Exelon initially hosted the STEM Academy events in Washington, D.C. and Chicago before kicking off a camp in Philadelphia this summer. 

While the themes have slightly changed since last year’s program, the academics primarily center upon energy efficiency. This year’s event in Philadelphia specifically surrounded the global climate crisis, as students engaged in activities, studied curriculum and produced projects working to reduce carbon footprints. 

“The idea of climate change is something that certainly is on the top of everyone’s mind and really aligned with what we – Exelon and PECO – are doing as part of the business is really focused on being really leading the charge in terms of clean energy,” ​​Innocenzo said.

According to a survey conducted by Exelon, even though nearly four out of five girls believe action must be taken to address climate change, the majority of the students don’t feel prepared to take on such issues themselves. 

The STEM Academy aimed to change that.

“I think to have climate change as the main point throughout the academy is so important, because as we tell the girls, they are the future leaders, they are the future generation,” said 17-year-old Emma Mendez of Chicago, a STEM Academy staff member. “They’re the ones who can help save millions and billions and even trillions of lives with other generations to come.”

Throughout the week, the students took tours of Exelon’s state-of-the-art Muddy Run Observatory, the Conowingo Hydroelectric Generating Station and the Limerick Generating Station, where they received a behind-the-scenes look and in-depth presentation of the facility’s two nuclear reactors.

Coupled with the tours, students learned about various forms of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, along with the fundamentals of architecture, including circuitry and scale.

Using knowledge collected through the week, the girls broke into small groups as each evaluated a different building on Drexel’s campus to brainstorm new methods of energy efficiency. The groups had to create a 3D model of the assigned building that they each presented, along with their sustainable improvement plans, at the end of the week at the Drexel Recreation Center and Gym.

“For me, I didn’t realize how much energy was being wasted,” said rising GAMP senior Khaliyah White. “On a daily basis, you don’t just think about that. But, this camp definitely opened my eyes to it…I’m definitely going to take that into account now – just at home and every day. Just to help make the earth more green and reducing my carbon footprint.”

While the week was intended to increase scientific knowledge, it concurrently aimed to expose the young women to career possibilities. 

According to a survey conducted by Exelon this year, “most young women are confident they have the skills needed to address climate change issues,” yet only 50 percent anticipate women “leading the efforts.” An even smaller percentage foresees job opportunities for women in the STEM field, the survey says. 

The academy also strived to change these predictions and perspectives. 

“Being at the tours and at the different plants, it was interesting to see,” said rising Julia R. Masterman School senior Nia Pederson. “We had a lot of white male people showing us the different plants and different things, and we would also have this group of women who are not the majority in that field, but they’re pulling together and they’re talking to us about it. So, it was interesting to hear them talk about being in that environment.”

Throughout the week, the students engaged in panels with various women in high-ranking fields, including Vice President of Electric Operations at PECO Nicole LeVine, Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania CEO Kim Fraites-Dow and Philadelphia Education Fund President and CEO Farah Jimenez. 

The students also participated in a leadership discussion moderated by Exelon Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs, Philanthropy and Customer Engagement Maggie Fitzpatrick, with guests from HeForShe and Exelon President and CEO Chris Crane. 

The objective, ​​Innocenzo stresses, is to not only offer access but reassurance to young women dreaming of pursuing careers in STEM.

“You’ve got a greater demand on science and technology helping to improve our lives and helping to improve outcomes,” ​​Innocenzo said. “Yet, you see across almost the entire STEM fields an under-representation of women in STEM education and STEM positions. There’s just this huge untapped talent that we need to continue to cultivate.”

Several of the students say, before participating in the camp, they often found themselves discouraged and even disheartened about embarking on an educational and career path oriented toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

However, at the conclusion of the program, students say the academy has made pursuits in such fields feel more attainable, expressing that the camp helped to mend any emotional, mental or social barriers keeping them at bay from their STEM aspirations. 

“For me personally, it makes me more confident and willing to go into the STEM field,” said rising GAMP senior Aaliyah White. “I know it’s male-dominated, but it made me more confident to feel like I’m not the only one. More women are being more confident in going into the field, too…Of course, it’s going to be hard sometimes, but you gotta have a backbone. You have to be willing to do it.” 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano