How nuclear volunteers are helping to close the STEM gap

Catawba Nuclear Station’s Business Women’s Network models a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) for young girls in Rock Hill.

What does a paper fish, tub of water and dish soap have to do with the Catawba Nuclear Station? On the surface, not much at all. But if we dive deeper, we find that paper fish swimming its way into the STEM gap. 

Lynette Vukelja walks a Saluda Trail Middle School student through a science experiment.

The fish, water and soap make up a science experiment demonstrating surface tension. You fill up the tub with water, place the paper fish on top of the water and watch it “swim” by placing a drop of soap behind its tail.

It is just one of many experiments Catawba Nuclear Station’s Business Women’s Network (BWN) members, like Jean Mathews, Catawba Nuclear Station Nuclear Work Management Specialist, and Lynette Vukelja, Catawba Nuclear Station Nuclear Performance Improvement Specialist, bring to Saluda Trail Middle School girls each month. The GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Math and Science) Club has been going strong at the Rock Hill school for years, even before Becky McCoy, the 7th grade counselor, started working at Saluda Trail five years ago.

“We always love having guests come in, especially as a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) school. We especially like to get our girls involved doing engineering, science, and math,” McCoy said.

Jean Mathews teaches GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Math and Science) Club members how to make a paper fish “swim” across the water in a water tension experiment.

She says it’s important for the girls to see women working in STEM careers. “Despite making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, women are still vastly underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce,” according to a 2021 U.S. Census Bureau article. It states that “women are nearly half of U.S. workforce, but only 27% of STEM workers.” The percentage of women in nuclear is even lower, representing less than 25% of nuclear workers worldwide, according to a 2019 International Atomic Energy Agency article.

That’s what the paper fish, tub of water and dish soap have to do with the Catawba Nuclear Station. With each experiment, Catawba Nuclear Station’s Business Women’s Network (BWN) is showing a group of 20-30 girls each month that STEM is not only fun, but that it’s a career path they can consider.

A Saluda Middle School student is getting ready to make the fish "swim" in this experiment.

"I like participating in GEMS because I like interacting with youth while presenting interesting science concepts. It is really rewarding to see the concepts click with the students. Even if the girls don’t choose to go into a career centered on engineering, math or science, at least they learn that each of the topics can be very interesting and engaging," said Vukelja.

Click here to try the water tension experiment at home.

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