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Engineering more ‘STEMinists’ in Hillsborough Schools

Hillsborough County Public Schools offers opportunities aimed at preparing more girls for engineering and STEM careers.

Pink paper planes coast through the air as a group of “STEMinists” test the gliders they designed. A special “DigiGirlz” event packs Microsoft’s Tampa offices. Students control underwater robots to complete Mission: Tampa Bay.

These are just a few ways Hillsborough County Public Schools is energizing more female students with a passion for careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), fields where women are traditionally underrepresented.

“If we can get the girls at an early age and show them the possibilities, they’ll get hooked,” says Nichelle Glenn, magnet lead teacher at Young Middle Magnet, a science and technology school in East Tampa.

Lily Augustin is one of those girls who caught the STEM bug early, while still at Lockhart Elementary Magnet School. Lily was among the crowd of girls testing their paper airplanes one recent afternoon. Her plane didn’t go far, but the Young sixth-grader hopes she’ll go far, with eyes on a career in technology or computing.

At Lockhart, lead teacher Meredith Mullen coordinates multiple activities for students, including girls known as “STEMinists.” When the movie “Hidden Figures” introduced the world to three little-known female STEM stars, students used it as a learning opportunity.

“There are women in the field of engineering,” Mullen says, “but they’re not as well known.”

Hillsborough STEM Director Larry Plank says partners love bringing more women to these high-demand, high-wage careers. Hillsborough Schools have more Million Women Mentors volunteers than any district nationwide, and Hillsborough leaders worked to have that program, meant for high school seniors, begin far earlier.

Now, students as young as fifth grade meet with mentors.

Programs like these are making a difference. Josephine Corder, lead teacher at Stewart Middle Magnet near downtown Tampa, says boys still comprise two-thirds of the school’s enrollment, but the ratio comes closer to even each year. It requires specialized programming and strategic recruiting, such as Girl Scout troops touring the school.

But the effort is worth it when you meet a student like sixth grader Lillie Sopalski. A few boys once told her she couldn’t excel at science and math because she was a girl. By fifth grade, she was tutoring some of the same boys who had doubted her.

“I proved them wrong,” she says.

It’s also worth it when you consider where a STEM education can take a student.

Glenn recalls an eye-opening quote from Microsoft’s “DigiGirlz” event: “There’s an unspecified number of jobs for girls in STEM. How many? There’s not a number. Some of the jobs don’t even exist yet.”

Interested in STEM?

Magnet schools are tuition-free and open to all Hillsborough County students via application. Hillsborough County Public Schools will offer an additional School Choice selection window July 12-19. Details at

STEM isn’t limited to magnets. Schools throughout Hillsborough offer programming, including two new STEM hubs serving several schools in New Tampa and Town ‘n’ Country.


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