Seventh-grade girls had an opportunity this week to participate in the STEM Sisters Conference, hosted by Fort Smith Public Schools and local Girl Scout Mattie McLellan.
“I really wanted Fort Smith girls to have this experience, have a really meaningful time and be interested in STEM,” McLellan said.
The rising Southside sophomore said the conference is her Gold Award project, the highest honor for Girl Scouts. She was inspired by the Girls of Promise event in Little Rock, where she was one of five Fort Smith students her eighth-grade year.
McLellan said she devised a basic schedule of what she wanted other girls to experience during the conference and worked with local organizations to put it together. She specifically noted the assistance from the Fort Smith School District, whose partnership provided transportation, the facility and teachers.
The four-day conference at Chaffin Junior High School allowed attendees to learn about science, technology, engineering and math concepts through the creation of liquid nitrogen ice cream, blood typing, cardboard marshmallow propeller tubes and earthquake-proof structures.
They also toured local facilities, such as the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine and 188th Air National Guard Unit, and heard from numerous speakers. Some organizations represented included ArcBest, ABB Electric and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
“I really want them to take a way more of an understanding that STEM is not just the science problems you do in class. There’s a lot more,” McLellan said. “There’s so many different pathways you can take and all of this is open to you.”
Flight surgeon Jennifer Law was the keynote speaker Friday who discussed the pathways she’s gone on since discovering in middle school an interest in STEM.
Law has a long resume, which includes work for NASA on Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, developing medical plans for United States astronauts, and actively monitoring astronauts’ vital signs during space missions. She also has done work on every continent, including Antarctica, to maintain the health of scientists.
One of Law’s biggest tasks was the observation of now-retired astronaut Scott Kelly during his yearlong stint on the International Space Station, which was the single longest space mission by an American astronaut. The purpose of the mission was to better understand the impact of space flight on human physiology.
Law encouraged the students to set big goals and continue to dream big, because “life is too short not to keep learning and experiencing things.”
The medical free agent, as she put it, still works at NASA part time. But she also does work in emergency rooms and in Antarctica. She will travel to Moscow for NASA in the coming months.
And, in the spirit of STEM Sisters, Law said she was usually the only woman in her classes for aerospace medicine, but that didn’t stop her from being successful. It should stop these girls from achieving big things, either.
“Draw on the strengths of women,” Law said, noting an ability for teamwork and creativity. “There’s a whole world waiting out there for you; lots of possibilities. I know you guys can do anything you set your mind to.”