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FIRSTE program for women celebrates 20th anniversary

5/8/2012 —

The Females Interested in Reaching for Science, Technology and Engineering (FIRSTE) program celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

Held Tuesday and Wednesday, May 8 and 9, the two-day summer program targets ninth through 11th-grade girls considering careers in science, technology or engineering. Designed to provide young women with information on their options in what are considered to be traditionally male-oriented fields, the program annually welcomes about a dozen students to the New Kensington campus where they learn about topics such as robotics and microbiology.

“We are trying to target those girls who are very good at math and science or those who are very driven and want a tech career,” said Cheryl Richards, Global Market Development Manager - Wind Energy at PPG Industries. Richards serves as a mentor in the FIRSTE program and has also been involved with strategy and funding for the program.

“I come in as a mentor saying ‘hi, I have two sciences degrees, I have a family’. I try to show them you can have a very lucrative career and still have a lot of these other things in life,” she said. “I can explain to them why these are savvy jobs – why it’s worth that effort.”

Richards is delighted with the program’s success and credits its longevity to the dedication of Penn State New Kensington campus’ staff, faculty and supporters, especially that of co-directors Joan Kowalski, senior instructor in engineering and Tracie Brockhoff, equipment specialist in the campus’ biology and chemistry programs.

“I can’t believe it was 20 years – it’s so awesome,” Richards said. “These women at Penn State who are teachers were passionate about keeping that program alive. Its believing in what we do and the passion we have.”
The program has included some new offerings this year, notably, an Apple iPad for each of the participants to use. The students’ experiences will be recorded on the iPad and shared with friends and family at FIRSTE’s banquet the evening of May 9.

The banquet’s keynote speaker, Katie Ottinger, is a graduate of Penn State who attended the FIRSTE program when she was a student at Penn Hills Senior High School. The Shaler woman graduated from Penn State’s University Park campus in 2010 with a B.S. in Industrial Engineering and a minor in Engineering Leadership Development.

“I think being the keynote speaker is a great opportunity to pass along some of the lessons I learned during my college career,” she said. “I will speak about my involvement with some of the wonderful programs available to women and other students in engineering programs as well as my professional internship experiences to get the students excited about the opportunities available to female engineers.”

From Kowalski’s point of view, having someone like Ottinger involved brings the program full circle and helps the students attending as well.

“Those who were participants themselves, we strive to bring them back in some capacity,” she said. “It does seem to affirm their decision to give this a try and they feel comforted by attending this program.”
Kowalski is glad the program has made it through two decades and now is looking forward to the FIRSTE program’s next milestone.

“I wonder if we can make it to 25 – a quarter of a century, that would be nice,” she said.

The FIRSTE program has been supported by organizations like the Bozzone Foundation, PPG Industries and Medrad as well as Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh, American Nuclear Society – Pittsburgh Section and Penn State Division of Undergraduate Studies, College of Engineering.

For more information on the FIRSTE program, contact Brockhoff at 724-334-6742 or tzb1@psu.edu or Kowalski at 724-334-6732 or jak12@psu.edu.

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