On May 25 I had the honor of attending the first annual STEMmy Awards at the Research Triangle Park Headquarters. Hosted by US2020 RTP and Citizen Schools, these awards honored students, educators, and mentors involved in local STEM education.
The award ceremony and dinner was beautiful, and featured Durham Mayor Bill Bell, US2020 National Manager Oscar Robles, and Fidelity Vice President Roy Fralin. All of these speakers inspired continued dedication to STEM education, especially Fralin’s call “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
Once the presentation of the “golden gears” (20-some pound trophies worthy of an award-show) got underway, the whole room seemed illuminated with anticipation.
The first winning individual of the night was Mansi Goyal, 5th grader from Hunter GT/AIG Basics Magnet Elementary. Mansi had by far the best acceptance speech, thanking not only her teachers and parents, but also her big brother, who, in her own words, “drove me crazy whenever he got an award or medal I wanted!” Upon interviewing her after the ceremony, I learned that Mansi’s favorite subject is language arts, because it allows her to be creative. That being said, she has dreamed of being a genetic scientist since she was 4, because she really likes learning about the human body. Mansi is inspired by Taylor Swift, and wishes to express how happy she is to have won the award for Student of the Year, K-8.
Mansi’s counterpart, the Student of the Year 9-16, is Joanna McDonald. First of all, yay for women in STEM! I found it fitting that part of US2020’s mission is to increase the number of women in STEM fields, and the STEMmys reflected the continued fruition of this mission.
Joanna is a senior at Green Hope High School. She loves science because she has always enjoyed learning about how things work. She says that her parents (Jim and Althea) instilled in her the drive to succeed. She laughed as she told me about some of the ways that she puts pressure on herself to do well in all that she does. That said, she is an incredibly bright young woman who is definitely going places; she even came prepared with a business card to give me! Joanna plans to attend UNC Chapel Hill and pursue Biomedical Engineering. She may one day continue on to medical school.
Shifting gears a bit, the award for Mentor of the Year was presented to Kenneth Lyle of Duke University. Kenneth has been a mentor for over 30 years! He initially began mentoring with a simple goal: to get more kids registered for his chemistry class. The population of students enrolling in science classes was decreasing at the time, so Kenneth began doing some in-house outreach to increase his numbers. With great success, Kenneth was able to increase the number of students registering for his course!
When I asked Kenneth about who has inspired him, he had a clear answer: Mr. Donald Johnson, his high school chemistry teacher. Mr. Johnson always had interesting experiments for his students to try, which made learning fun. Kenneth chuckled as he recalled the fact that this was a time before it was considered dangerous to expose students to chemicals. “We did everything!” When Kenneth graduated from college, he got a job as a science teacher, was given a classroom full of students, and was told to create a curriculum. Grasping at straws, he found the chemical closet and began by doing what Mr. Johnson taught him to do: engaging students with experiments that made learning fun.
The final award of the night was presented to RTPi3 Essay Contest Winner Benjamin Warlick, junior at Charles D. Owen Highschool. The essay challenge presented by US2020 RTP posed the following question: “If you had no obstacles & unlimited resources in pursuing a STEM career, how would you ignite an idea, show great innovation or inspire someone else?” Benjamin’s winning essay discussed his theory on how the enzyme telomerase could potentially lengthen the human lifespan. Benjamin told me that he enjoys science because of the variety of what can be done; he is intrigued by the natural complexities in the study of genetics. For the past few years, Benjamin has participated in Duke’s Talent Identification Program, where he has learned a lot. He hopes to eventually obtain his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry, continue on to a graduate degree in Kinetics, and eventually, study for his Doctorate in Genetic Embryology.
While I wanted to take the time to recognize the individual winners of the STEMmy awards, I do want to call out the other winners selected:
- STEM School of the Year, Lowe’s Grove Middle School
- STEM Youth-Serving Organization of the Year, Kramden Institute
- STEM Industry Partner of the Year, US Environmental Protection Agency
- STEM Higher Ed Department of the Year, NC State Kenan Fellows
As Kenneth told me, “it takes so many people to make this work.” Without STEM educators and partners, there would be no place for students and mentors to thrive.
As I drove home after the dessert reception that concluded the festivities, I marveled in awe at the spectacular future that awaits these brilliant minds. As an advocate for women and minorities in STEM, I am so pleased with the work that US2020 RTP continues to do. I would like to specifically thank Brett Brenton, US2020 RTP Project Director, Sarah Council, US2020 RTP Programs Manager, and Tatiana Jenkins and Zack Rubin, US2020 RTP AmeriCorps Vistas for the 2015-2016 year. Your dedication to students in the area is clearly evident in all that you do. As a community, we humbly thank you.