‘Sky is the limit:’ Local educator inspires female students to enter STEM fields
By Matthew Stewart | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A local educator wants to empower young women to pursue their dreams — even if they include a soldering kit.
“Girls take a lot of AP (Advanced Placement) STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) classes in high school, but the percentage of females working in STEM fields is far behind males,” said Maria Toncray, Tennessee's Expanding Your Horizons Alliance’s director. “We feel that it’s due to a lack of confidence. Maybe they’ve decided they can’t work in STEM fields. Maybe they’ve heard, ‘You can’t do it, because you’re a girl.’ It doesn’t matter, though. We’re here to empower girls and make sure they know that the sky is the limit for them. They’re just as smart as boys — and they can pursue their dreams.”
Toncray, who recently taught at Maryville Christian School, is a Girls Raised in Tennessee Science (GRITS) Collaborative Project Leadership Team member. She also serves on the Women In STEM (WISTEM) Center’s board.
Establish your horizons
Tennessee has two established EYH Network sites: Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Memphis. Both sites serve more than 600 middle and high school girls.
In 2014, officials plan to start Chattanooga EYH and East Tennessee EYH sites.
MTSU will host its 17th annual Expanding Your Horizons in Science and Mathematics Conference from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 21. Officials have planned a full day of information and hands-on activities, which are aimed at adults, educators, parents and female students who are in grades 5-12.
Registration is $15. Lunch and materials are provided.
Director of Undergraduate Recruitment Melinda Thomas will discuss the college admission and financial aid processes, and a college representative will discuss STEM majors and careers. A Texas Instruments representative will instruct adults on the latest STEM classroom technology.
Adults are invited to hear the keynote address by Liza Massey, former president of Nashville Technology Council. They can also learn about the program directory, minigrants, and available STEM resources.
“We’ve received a lot of positive feedback about the conference,” Toncray said. “Many girls have told us that they hated science before they came to it, and they’ve went on to love science.”
EYH is also planning to host a spring conference at Walters State Community College in Morristown. Officials will develop a program similar to the MTSU conference.
“Our focus is to get girls excited and motivated about STEM fields,” Toncray said. “We’re looking for people who can relate to them. We want to train business leaders, community leaders, and educators, so they can effectively motivate girls. Professionals have a tendency to speak above the students’ heads, so the kids lose interest because they don’t understand.”
Toncray is offering assistance to business leaders and local schools. She can offer a one- to two-hour workshop, based on needs.
“It’s extremely important that we all work together,” Toncray said. “One experience can change a girl’s whole life, and a strong role model can determine a child’s success. I can still remember the excitement that my female students felt when they worked on a soldering project. They had no idea that they could it.”
Focus on big picture
Toncray has firsthand STEM experience. Prior to working as an educator, she served as a medical laboratory technologist.
“Working in a medical laboratory, STEM was obviously a big part of my job,” she said. “We had a lot of automation, and our machines would break down. I liked to sit with the engineers, see what they did, and learn how to fix them. I took over some of their roles, and my male counterparts didn’t like it.”
Toncray advised that she faced professional challenges in her field. “As I was promoted, I encountered a lot of adversity and discrimination. I ran into a lot of men who criticized me, professionally and personally. They discouraged me from seeking promotions. I was greatly surprised by what I faced in the ‘90s and early 2000s, because I thought we’d overcome these things.”
The alliance director was able to overcome those challenges, though. “I kept my focus on the big picture, and I overcame. A lot of options and positions are out there for women. Women who want to raise a family shouldn’t be discouraged either. Many companies offer day care and/or flextime, so you can be a mother and still have a successful career.”
Toncary has two children who attend Union Grove Elementary School. “I took several years off, but I was able to continue my career. Women shouldn’t be discouraged, because they have a lot of options. The sky is the limit.”