“How is the view from space?” asked a North Merrick sixth-grader named Angelina.
“Outstanding,” replied Nicole Stott with a laugh. “That view is stunning. Our planet glows in all those colors that we know our planet to be, but it’s like a big lightbulb that’s been splattered with them all.”
From inside the Cradle of Aviation’s Planetarium Theater, Stott, a veteran NASA astronaut, launched the imaginations of dozens of female students to the stars. In celebration of Women’s History Month, a panel on Monday encouraged the young women to pursue science, technology, engineering and math careers.
More than 90 female students — from the North Merrick elementary district and seniors from the Bellmore-Merrick Meadowbrook Alternative Program — attended. Combined with neighboring schools, the theater was filled with more than 200 participants.
Sharon DeVivo, the first woman president of Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, was also on the panel.
Female representation in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — is slim, the panelists said. Despite a narrowing gap, men make up more than three quarters of the workforce. Women make up 14 percent of engineering occupations, for example (see box).
Stott shared photos documenting her career — some showed her and her classmates in aeronautical engineering classes; others showed her on a runway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 1988, when she joined the agency. Another was of NASA’s astronaut class of 2000, nicknamed “the Bugs.”
One thing stood out in many of the photos: Stott was often the only woman, or one of just a few. She also shared stories about life aboard the International Space Station, which she visited twice, bonding with the shuttle teams, climbing the exterior of the ISS and her life after her excursions.
Some engineering fields still struggle for even 20 percent female representation, Stott said. “But I will tell you that some of, if not the best, students in those engineering programs are the women that are participating,” she promised the packed theater. “Don’t discount it. Let us be your examples.”
Stott and DeVivo challenged the girls to face their fears and doubts to offset the field’s imbalance — “Lust pick up that pen” and apply for that dream job, Stott said.
“One of the sad things is that we see a tremendous drop-off for girls after fifth grade in math,” DeVivo said. “We’re not exactly sure why that is, but girls that stick with it have tremendous opportunities.”
There is currently a shortage of pilots and maintenance technicians in the United States, for example, DeVivo said, along with other available career paths.
When News12 anchor and panel host Carol Silva asked the students if they had ever felt like they were not good, pretty or strong enough, almost all of them raised their hands.
“I thought being an astronaut was a job that only other special people get to do,” Stott reassured them. “Why would I ever think that I could be an astronaut?”
“I have a 20-year-old daughter, and the same still happens to her,” DeVivo added. “But I think the difference is, now she knows her own worth and her own value — I would hope that for all of you as well, that you know your own worth and find your voice.”
Support is key, the speakers said. Stott noted her various crews and classmates, who all made her expeditions possible. DeVivo advised the girls to lift one another up, rather than push one another down.
“We tend not to be very supportive of our fellow women. We can be very competitive,” DeVivo said. “It’s going to be standing on each other’s shoulders that we get to a new place.”