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As the capacity for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers in West Virginia continues to increase, a new effort dubbed “Establishing Mentoring Pipeline of Women through Education and Research in STEM (EMPOWERS), is rising to encourage women to seize opportunities in the field.  

EMPOWERS, a partnership between representatives from the NASA WV Space Grant Consortium, WVU Tech, Marshall University, West Virginia State University, West Virginia University, the WVU Extension Service’s 4-H program, TechConnect West Virginia and the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia, represents the best way of doing business, according to Dr. Melanie Page, Associate Vice President for Creative & Scholarly Activity at WVU.

Page added the program works collaboratively and cooperatively across institutions and entities. 

“We are very excited to be part of this new initiative to bring many of the parties working so hard to improve STEM education in our state to the table to work more effectively together,” she said. 

A WVU Tech press release explained EMPOWERS is designed to impact girls at every point along the STEM pathway, from K-12 and college all the way through their careers and beyond.

Dr. Afrin Naz, Associate Professor in the WVU Tech Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, is the chair of EMPOWERS. She said those involved in the program want every person who comes into contact with EMPOWERS to consider where they are in the STEM pipeline, how the program will help them at this particular stage and how they might, in turn, give back to other girls and women who are in these fields alongside them. 

Where the goal is a strengthened female workforce, the primary tool to meet that goal is mentorship, a WVU Tech press release stated.

“EMPOWERS will pool partner resources to oversee, develop or enhance programs that encourage young girls to explore STEM fields. It will pair professionals with younger mentees to guide them through the process and, hopefully, continue the mentorship through high school, college and into the mentee’s career.”

According to WVU Tech officials, EMPOWERS is also currently offering the “Ambassadress” program, which is in its pilot phase in Raleigh County.

The Ambassadress program involves five undergraduate students who are mentoring high school girls in science and math through various after-school activities. Upon completion of the pilot phase, EMPOWERS expects the program to spread into neighboring counties.

According to WVU Tech officials, the EMPOWERS network will also draw in existing programs to enhance the viability and reach of their efforts. For example, West Virginia State University’s Rocket Girls day camp is a part of network, which encourages teenagers to explore engineering, design and rocketry. Further south, programs such as Girls Interested in Robotics LEGO and Scratch (GIRLS) enables the EMPOWERS network to reach middle school students in the field of robotics at Fayette County.

The network will also tap into the statewide efforts of the WVU Extension Service’s 4-H program.

“The importance of having our West Virginia children succeed in life is a cornerstone of 4-H youth development,” said Sherry Swint, WVU Extension professor and 4-H agent for Kanawha County.

According to Swint, 4-H has been keeping pace with the needs of young people, offering many STEM-focused camps and clubs that strengthen children’s knowledge, skills and abilities.

“Being a collaborative member of EMPOWERS will allow WVU Extension and other STEM-focused organizations to synergistically support young females to follow their goals and dreams,” she said.

As the EMPOWERS network grows, the program plans to tailor STEM outreach to the unique and often varied needs of different regions in the state. Ultimately, the partnership hopes to create a web of connected STEM professionals and students covering the state and its STEM-related businesses and industries.

According to WVU Tech officials, EMPOWERS is seeking women in STEM fields to get involved with operating and expanding programming throughout the state. To find out more about the program, visit empowersusa.org.  

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