STEM program helping young women enhance their interests

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Daija Sydnor

Daija Sydnor may one day save the planet.

It may not happen tomorrow, but Sydnor’s interest in biomedical engineering and robotics, along with her passion for improving the Earth’s environment, could someday pay off in a big way for Mother Nature.

Sydnor was one of 60 high school students from the Philadelphia area who participated in the STEM Innovation Leadership Academy during the final week of July. Hosted virtually by Exelon Foundation through its commitment to the United Nations HeForShe initiative, the event has become an annual opportunity to help high school girls grow skills in the four major professions that STEM stands for — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“I enjoyed it a lot,” said Sydnor, 16, who is a rising junior at Universal Audenried Charter High School. “It made me interact and share common interests with other people that I don’t normally do on a daily basis.”

The STEM Academy is in the third year of Exelon’s three-year, $3 million investment to promote young women’s participation in the STEM fields. Exelon initially hosted the STEM Academy events in Washington, D.C. and Chicago two years ago before expanding to Philadelphia last summer. Because of the coronavirus, all cities took part in the program virtually. But that didn’t hold back any of the instruction and experience that centered around the theme of climate change.

“We moved to all-virtual this year for obvious reasons,” said Paula Conrad, vice president of corporate relations and president of the Exelon Foundation. “It’s interesting to do things through Zoom because that’s how we are doing our networking these days anyway. It’s really opened our eyes to the opportunities we can do virtually. In the past, that’s been seen as secondary and we definitely hope next year to be back in person but as we do opportunities throughout the rest of the year, to be able to do some things virtually is more convenient for the students and some of the participants.”

The program lasted about five hours a day, and students had the opportunity to learn about energy and electricity through different panels of executives at PECO and Exelon. It’s something that was geared toward Sydnor, who doesn’t have any classmates in high school who share the same interests in engineering.

“I’m the only girl at my school who is interested in engineering so I felt alone until I came to this program,” Sydnor said.

Students were broken up into small groups and tasked with designing an invention that would help mitigate climate change. Sydnor came up with blueprints for a solar-powered bicycle, which would provide a smooth ride while reducing the carbon footprint.

“It’s supposed to get people to places just as fast as cars do,” Sydnor said. “And it would be great for the environment because it’s not going to give off toxic exhaust into the atmosphere.”

Students prepared a five-minute presentation, pitching academy judges on their product and showcasing their learnings from the week while highlighting ways that their invention helps address the environment.

“It made me feel good because in the time we’re in now, we need to do more to help the environment because of global warming,” Sydnor said.

Sydnor, who plays on Audenried’s volleyball team and is a cheerleader, will have the opportunity to revisit the program next year in a different role as a counselor, as the program is expected to continue into year four. Conrad called STEM “the shining star” of the company’s educational programs.

“We have such tremendous support within PECO and Exelon that we want to continue it moving ahead,” Conrad said. “And we plan to invite students to apply to come back as junior counselors, and they become mentors to the current group of students.”

It’s something that Sydnor already has lined up in her sights.

“I would love to lead people in the right direction,” she said. “Me helping others with common interests is something I am very interested in.”

It makes it even more special knowing girls like Sydnor are empowering each other in a field that needs more women.

“I loved it because in engineering, there aren’t a lot of females in the field,” Sydnor said. “To see other women like myself who want to go into that field was really good.”