West Hartford high schoolers participate in Sisters in STEM program

Michael Walsh

WEST HARTFORD — Students at both high schools recently participated in the University of Connecticut’s Sisters in STEM conference, designed to expose more young Black and Latina girls to the field.

Jackie Corricelli, who is a Conard High School math and computer science teacher and the district’s computer science curriculum specialist, said there is a very apparent underrepresentation those girls in their programs.

Using her own experience as a woman navigating the STEM field in high school and college, Corricelli wants to build a more welcoming environment for girls in West Hartford that she didn’t quite have when she was their age.

“In general our most underrepresented population is females,” Corricelli said. “Our most underrepresented population in computer science are Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Hispanic females. Anything I can do for female empowerment and to help students feel more welcome than I did, I want to do.”

The free program, designed by UConn’s Vergnano Institute of Inclusion, provided a day of educational and hands-on exercises. Thirty total sophomores participated at both Conard and Hall High School.

Among them was Sasha Belabe, a Conard student who is eager to make a splash in STEM.

“I knew I was going to do this,” Belabe said. “Right now I’m taking geometry and I’m really engaged in that class. I like the mathematics field. I’m thinking about going into STEM.”

Belabe proudly showed off creations the group had made during the morning portion of the conference, including a bath bomb and a badge that lights up.

“At first it wasn’t lighting up,” Belabe said. “It was so rigorous. When it lit up, I lit up. I’m really excited to go show my family. I’m really excited about this.”

After their lunch break, the group was going to tackle racism and activism in the STEM field. Those discussions, Belabe said, were very meaningful.

“It is important,” Belabe said. “Girls think it might be something only guys do or a men’s thing, so they don’t want to do computer science. But if they see a panel of women and they talk about what they do in computer science, women would be more inclined to go into it.”

Corricelli said she hoped that by bringing the program to West Hartford, some students might see STEM as a viable path for them.

“We are always looking for more females to sign up. It’s a sad state of affairs,” Corricelli said. “We’ve got no shortage of problems in the country. We need more perspectives to solve those problems.”

Belabe said the problem is that field can be intimidating when you feel like an outsider. What helps, she added, was being inspired by other women who have broken through in the field.

“I feel that is scary,” Belabe said. “I feel like I won’t get as far or I won’t be as good as them. But someone has to overcome so other people can do it. There has to be the firsts, which can open the gate to a lot of other minority women joining.”

Aniyah Walker, another Conard student, said she participated in a similar STEM camp over the summer, so she was eager to join the conference.

“There aren’t a lot of minorities in STEM, but also not a lot of women in STEM,” Walker said. “I’ve always been into women empowerment and inclusion. It’s something that is slowly changing but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Alexandra Santana, also a Conard sophomore, said she’s possibly looking at taking an AP level computer science class at the school next year.

“I signed up to be a computer science ambassador here, and the reason why is because there’s not even a lot of Black women at this school, and especially in computer science,” Santana said. “I do really like computer science a lot.”

Corricelli, who has a 13-year-old daughter, said the day was all about opening doors to people that in the past have remained closed.

“We’ve got to get better,” Corricelli said. “Things are supposed to improve. Just like they did for me, things are supposed to improve for these girls. They shouldn’t have to work as hard as I did to be able to create these opportunities. It’s all about more perspectives. If you walk around with one eye closed, you’re only seeing half the world.”

Written by Michael Walsh

VII April 2022 Newsletter

 

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Engineering Her Best Self

Courtney Luker

“It’s 2022. It’s crazy that being a woman in engineering is still such a big deal.”

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Courtney LukerIt’s no surprise that Courtney Luker ’22 (ENG) enjoyed Playmobil when she was a kid. Lots of children do. But not too many mention their devotion to this iconic, people-centric, role-playing, let’s-build-something-fun collection on their college applications. She did.

A native of Glastonbury, Connecticut, Luker will graduate with a degree in biomedical engineering in May. And yes, her father is an engineer. And yes, her sister Kelly graduated from UConn with a degree in chemical engineering in 2012. Both have been good role models. But Luker’s interest in figuring out how things work by taking them apart and putting them back together again was obvious from the time she was a toddler.

She laughs when she describes one of her nascent experiments that involved making a snow sled from cardboard and duct tape she found in the family garage, and then using her creation in an attempt to slide down Buttonball Hill in her hometown. “That experiment,” she says with a sigh, “did not go particularly well.”

After two years of summer internships with medical device company Medtronic, Luker has accepted a full-time position with the company following graduation. She’ll begin a two-year rotational program in their medical surgical department in North Haven, Connecticut. That will be followed by further experience the following year in either Boston or Boulder, Colorado. An avid hiker, she says Boulder sounds enticing. Then again, she considers herself an “East Coast person,” so if Boston wins out, that’s okay, too.

Luker is part of a growing contingent of women entering the engineering profession. She says she’s proud of UConn’s commitment to eliminating gender inequality in this field, and also of the fact that women make up 31% of this year’s freshmen engineering majors — the highest percentage to date.

She’s quick to point out, however, that, “It’s 2022. It’s crazy that being a woman in engineering is still such a big deal.”

As president of the UConn chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Luker is intent on paying it forward to honor the upperclassmen who helped her get acclimated when she arrived on campus in the fall of 2018.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the women in SWE who mentored me when I was new to UConn,” she says. “I asked them all sorts of questions, from what to wear to interviews for internships to advice about courses.”

Luker talks about how it felt, in her second year, to be one of only three women in a discussion/lab section of an electrical engineering course. “To be honest, that was intimidating. But with the support and encouragement of junior and senior women, I made it through. That’s something I’ll never forget.”

Now she’s intent on mentoring other inquisitive girls and young women who are considering engineering as a career. One way she does that is through Multiply Your Options, which reaches out to 8th-grade girls in local schools, providing demonstrations and hands-on exposure to various engineering disciplines. “With more programs like this we can continue to decrease gender inequality in engineering.” Thanks to her experiences with SWE, Luker has been inspired to be what she calls “the best version of myself.” To that end, her immediate goal is to become an expert in medical product development, and ultimately share her knowledge with surgeons in hospital settings.

But, she adds with a smile, “I’ve really enjoyed the management side of being a leader — in SWE — and helping people perform their duties. I’m now actually thinking that an MBA might be in my future, too.”

BY SHEILA FORAN ’83 (BGS), ’96 PH.D.
PHOTO BY PETER MORENUS