Celebrating women at the Space & Science Festival



Visitors of the Space & Science Festival at the Intrepid museum test out Defying Gravity, a virtual reality documentary. Photo: Janet Lie.

”People are always surprised when they find out I major in chemical engineering,” says 20-year-old Elizabeth Menten, a third-year student at Columbia University.

Menten is one of the many aspiring scientists and engineers who attended the annual Space & Science Festival from September 20 to 23, on the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Midtown. The event, founded by the museum, gathers kids and adults every year to explore new STEM activities and innovations. The weekend’s wide range of exhibits and games attracts a broad audience, including a large number of women and school-aged girls, the very demographic the festival wants to attract in a push to get more females interested in STEM careers.

”The biggest misconception about women in STEM is that we’re all nerds, not cool, or that we have to look a certain way,” says Menten. “We’re all into science, but it’s not our whole identity. We have engineers who are amazing dancers or walk fashion shows.” Small children line up to watch her perform a demo with sound waves and sea salt, in front of a booth for the Society for Women Engineers, a national educational non-profit with over 370,000 members.

”We definitely think it’s important to get more women involved in the field,” said Thomas Berry, senior manager of the Intrepid museum. ”There is such a great STEM culture in and around the city.” For the festival, he added, “we all get to nerd out this weekend.”

According to data from the Office of the Chief Economist, a U.S. agency that reports on economic and demographic data, women hold 47 percent of all jobs in the U.S., but they only make up 24 percent of STEM jobs. While women and men have the same percentage of undergraduate degrees, only about 30 percent of STEM degree holders are female. Also, women with STEM degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation; they are more likely to work in education or healthcare instead.

The festival organized Q&A’s with female pioneers from the field, including NASA astronaut Sunita Williams and Dr. Mae Jemison, who in 1992 was the first woman of color to go into space.

“When I was a little girl growing up, I was really irritated that there were no women astronauts and no people of color,” said Dr. Jemison at her panel talk. “As a 7-year-old, I thought, ‘What if aliens run into this crew? They’re going to think that those are the only people on Earth!’ I thought it was unreasonable for us not to have everyone represented.”

To show the public that women have always been involved in science, Dr. Jemison worked with Microsoft to create one of the most popular activities at the festival — a virtual reality experience called Defying Gravity.

After putting on virtual reality goggles, a person is greeted by a life-sized hologram of Dr. Jemison, who narrates a 10-minute documentary about women’s historic contributions in space. The program features a host of female pioneers, including the Harvard Computers, a group of college-educated women in the 1910s who processed space data; Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician; and Dr. Patricia Cowings, the psychophysiologist who was the first African-American woman to be trained as an astronaut by NASA.

The responses to Defying Gravity have been overwhelmingly positive, says producer Leah Pavlik. “One woman, a science reporter, cried because she was so inspired by the long history of brilliant women.”

One of the visitors standing in line for the exhibit was 22-year-old New York native Julia Berdecia, a third-year computer science major at The City College of New York. ”I’m just here because I love science,” she said. Growing up, Berdecia didn’t think she was able to do math, because it was seen as something for boys, she said. “If you told 9-year-old me I would be a computer science major now, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

According to the museum, approximately 10,000 visitors alone showed up on the Saturday of the festival. Some other activities included a pop-up planetarium show called Giant Leaps, which takes visitors on a journey into space. A new exhibition called Personal Space featured the personal items that astronauts brought with them on missions, including their favorite book and their children’s artwork. There was a free screening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi on the Intrepid’s flight deck.

The Intrepid museum also pushes for girls to get interested in STEM all year round.  Goals for Girls is a free program for middle school and high school students that includes weekend science forums and a six-week summer intensive program, where girls go on trips, do science experiments, and are mentored by professionals in the field.

”We had a group of fifty girls who were all into the same stuff,” says Martha Hernandez, 20, who participated in the program in 2012 and now works for the Intrepid as an educator. ”Being in such a welcoming environment was really important for me because my high school had less than 10 percent girls.”

Menten believes that role models are crucial for girls interested in STEM. She first got exposed to engineering in the fifth grade, when she attended the Society for Women Engineers’ outreach event at Columbia University. She was inspired by the number of female students and professors in the field. At the Space & Science Festival, Menten has met many young girls. “It’s important for them to see themselves represented,” she said. ”We were once in their shoes, and they can someday be in ours.”