Growing from the STEM up

“As I learn more about the statistics of women in STEM fields and particularly engineering, I want to introduce girls to the field. Having awareness of the possibilities is the first step.”

Heidi Kenkel co-founded the Women in STEM mentoring program in Cedar Valley with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Then a program of Teammates mentoring, Women in STEM in Cedar Valley is now a part of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Iowa mentoring program in the area, and is certified by the Iowa Mentoring Partnership. Heidi has volunteered as a mentor since she helped start the program in 2013, almost 4 years ago. She credits her commitment to Women in STEM to her positive upbringing, where she was privileged to learn early on that women can and do have an important place in STEM research and work.

“I was very fortunate to have family that encouraged and supported me,” says Heidi. “My dad took me to the college where he taught and showed me CAD models of the space shuttle. This was beyond cool!”

“I also have an aunt and an uncle that are both engineers and they were a positive influence on me,” Heidi adds. “I was able to job shadow my aunt for a day while I was in high school and this was very impactful. Seeing where she worked and what she worked on was invaluable.”

As a woman who was made aware early on of the opportunities available to her in STEM, Heidi believes strongly in showing girls that they’re capable of STEM careers and that this kind of future isn’t off-limits to them.

Sarah and Heidi have been matched through Women in STEM Mentoring since the mentee was in 4th grade, at the very beginning of Women in Stem in Cedar Valley. “I really enjoy seeing her make connections as we do various activities, especially when we worked on the gravity cruiser and successfully completed trials,” Heidi says of her mentee. The Gravity Cruiser was an all-time favorite. One of the first projects of STEM Mentoring in Cedar Valley, the project involved a lot of experimentation and steps, each of which taught the girls important scientific and mathematic concepts.

After almost four years of mentoring, Heidi’s been able to see Sarah grow in her understanding and self-expression: “She was never a reserved girl to begin with, but the insights she’s sharing have expanded.” In addition to a focused learning experience and fun projects, STEM girls are offered the unique space to express themselves and their ideas with other girls and women who share their interests. “These girls are so willing to share their ideas and speak up,” Heidi says. “I really enjoy seeing them trying to make those connections and seeing their faces light up.”

Sarah brings her original ideas to STEM mentoring and a passion for science and math that is infectious. “She is not afraid to speak up and share her ideas for the projects we work on. I love her enthusiasm!”  One time, Heidi says, “Sarah and I were asked to showcase the Women in Stem mentoring program booth as part of a community celebration for the Waterloo Schools Foundation. She really lit up talking to others about our project and what she learned.”

Women in STEM mentoring program began with 8 mentors and a handful of 4th and 5th grade girls in 2013. Now, almost 4 years later, the program has expanded to 25 mentors, many new girls, and mentees who have stayed since the beginning. After barely 4 years in a small town, this growth is a huge success for Cedar Valley. Some of the mentors are still in training, but Heidi is excited to see how much they’ll add to the program once they start.

“My goal for our Women in STEM mentoring program is to provide girls knowledge that these opportunities are available to them,” Heidi says. “In our program, mentors are engineers, architects, college-level STEM educators, and IT professionals.  These girls see professional women from our area working in these fields.”

For STEM mentors and similar programs throughout Iowa, Heidi adds, mentoring is just as relational as it is educational. A good mentor is consistent and invested in her mentee. “Sometimes these girls just need someone to talk to and it doesn’t necessarily need to be related to STEM.” Heidi wants to give Sarah and other STEM mentees the experience of a caring adult investing in their future. “There’s value,” she says, “in having adults in your life who care but don’t have to.”

Learn more about STEM mentoring for girls in Iowa at the Million Women Mentors-IA page here.