Human Element‘STEM has always been something that I’ve been super-excited about trying to inspire in the next generation.’ – Danielle Ward

‘STEM has always been something that I’ve been super-excited about trying to inspire in the next generation.’ – Danielle Ward

Employees Volunteer Time & Energy to STEM

Each year Aptima sets aside a budget to support employees who wish to volunteer their time for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) educational activities in the local schools. Two of those employees, Senior Research Engineer Danielle “Danny” Ward and Scientist Lisa Lucia, sat down with The Human Factor to share their school-based STEM experiences and their stories about their own paths to STEM careers. Danielle Ward also oversees Aptima’s STEM budget and activities.

HF: Why was it important for you to get involved with STEM activities?

Danielle: STEM has always been something that I’ve been super excited about trying to inspire in the next generation. I’m lucky that my father is an engineer, so growing up I had all sorts of opportunities to learn what being an engineer was and what it entailed, and we would build things together. I wanted to make sure that other kids had that opportunity. Also, being a female engineer, I wanted to make sure that kids have examples of women in engineering, that it wasn’t just “a man’s world.” I wanted to show young girls at that crucial age of middle school, where most girls typically shy away from the engineering disciplines, that “Hey, you can do it—look at me!”

Lisa: Before I started working at Aptima I had a job teaching 8th and 9th grade Algebra. While teaching that subject, I remembered how much fun math is! I wanted to share my enthusiasm for math and science with students as they’re just starting to figure out what subjects they enjoy. It really is amazing and so impressive to see students learn and master these technical thinking and problem solving skills, and have fun while they do it!

HF: What STEM activities have you been up to?

Danielle: I’ve been volunteering at the Robinson Middle School in Lowell, Massachusetts. An Aptima contact put me in touch with a teacher who was starting a STEM program. I had some ideas for science activities for the kids—these are 5th through 8th grade inner city school kids who are interested in science, math, technology and engineering. So we put together different projects for a citywide science fair held in the spring. The first half of the year we worked on their projects, trying to define, create and design them and do the experiments. The kids then all went to the science fair and did really well!

Lisa: I was so glad to hear that Aptima encourages us to help out with STEM at local schools—so, last year, I reached out to my alma mater, Boston Latin School, to find out how I could help with their after-school tutoring programs and science fair activities. Throughout the school year (2015-2016), I helped out a couple of afternoons a month mostly tutoring students in Algebra. I’m looking forward to continuing my involvement when tutoring starts up again this year.

HF: What have been the high points for you in your STEM experiences?

Danielle: We had a STEM event here at Aptima back in March where we had a group of kids from McCall Middle School in Winchester, Mass. (where I used to teach) come in. I got a bunch of Aptima volunteers to help out, and we had a design challenge for the kids…along with pizza. For some of the engineers here who might not have the time for a weekly STEM commitment, we brought the kids to them here at Aptima so it was a great opportunity to do STEM outreach, and the kids had a ton of fun!

Lisa: Math for me is like solving puzzles, so it’s definitely fun. The highlight last year was tutoring a student who, after checking the back of the book to find out she got the answer correct, said that she thought it was fun too! I was ecstatic! When you attack a hard-to-solve, multi-step problem, check your answer, and get it right—it feels so great, like such an accomplishment! I’m so glad that I’ve had these opportunities to help inspire others to think that math is fun, too.

HF: What led each of you down the path to a STEM career?

Danielle: I actually gave a similar talk to a group of middle school girls a couple of months ago. I’m a member of the Society of Women Engineers and there was a special “Wow, That’s Engineering!” program that SWE was hosting. I told the girls that I didn’t want to be an engineer when I was growing up. I had had all these great experiences with my dad building stuff but I thought engineering was already solved, so that engineering only involved looking up the answer. I didn’t think it was challenging or interesting. My college didn’t have Engineering so got my BS in Physics but quickly realized what I enjoyed most about physics was the problem solving…which really was engineering at the core. I discovered—luckily not too late—that what I enjoyed most was creating new solutions to a problem. I switched to Engineering in grad school and was excited to learn that engineering was creative problem-solving, where you have to truly understand the problem and craft the solution.

Lisa: I always loved science, biology, and math. When I went to college I took an Intro Psych class. I was interested in the mind and cognitive theories, etc., but I wanted the topics to be more fact-based so I turned to the Biological Psychology track because Cognitive Neuroscience wasn’t offered (yet). I got to dive into classes like Drugs & Behavior, and eventually to dissect brains; it was very hands-on, very tactile, very science-based and real—I felt if I could measure it then it was more convincing, better scientific evidence. I started learning more about the different technologies used for measuring the brain and brain activity as people perform different functions (like MRI, fMRI, and EEG). That’s what I was (and am still) interested in—learning how the brain enables us to think, feel, remember, navigate, etc.

HF: Is there anything else that you’d like to add in closing?

Lisa: At Aptima, we have great role models—nice people who do really thoughtful research. It’s so wonderful to work with Danny, an awesome engineer who’s a great example of a successful female in the STEM field!