The Pink Wave in STEM – Starting in Middle School

Marconi Women in STEM

Maya Ajmera, Henry Samueli, Jacqueline Prawira, Paula Golden

Photo courtesy of Linda Doane/Society for Science & the Public

When Henry Samueli was awarded the Marconi Prize 2012 for his pioneering advances that led to the explosive growth of the consumer broadband industry, he met with Paula Golden, President of the Broadcom Foundation, to discuss the best way to create impact with the award.

Samueli had fallen in love with engineering in middle school when he successfully built a Heathkit radio, despite his instructor’s caution that the project might be too difficult. This was the catalyst for inspiring middle school students – and as the father of daughters, particularly girls – to use this time in their lives to expand their horizons and their visions of who they could be and how the sciences provide exciting avenues to help them get there.

The Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation was born that day as a way to honor the role that Guglielmo Marconi played in transforming electrical engineering. The $10,000 prize, one of the top prizes in the Broadcom MASTERS® competition, honors technical excellence, innovation and creative thinking, just as other prizes given by the Marconi Society do. The award recognizes young scientists who are pushing the boundaries of traditional engineering with a project in electrical engineering to innovate in our highly connected world.

This year’s winner of the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation exemplifies the type of student that Henry Samueli and the Broadcom Foundation are honored to support.

13 year-old Jacqueline Prawira got the inspiration for her project from her chore of taking out the garbage. “It taught me how much waste we produce every day,” Prawira says. “Each year, Americans produce 200 million tons of garbage. This is creating the great Pacific garbage patch, threatening organisms and destroying our environment. It is important to me to solve this problem because I want to live in a cleaner and healthier environment.”

Photo courtesy of Linda Doane/Society for Science & the Public

Prawira’s project explored how fibers from common plant-based materials found in garbage could improve the formation and strength of plastic, enabling people to make better use of materials that would otherwise be thrown away. She analyzed the properties of materials made from cotton, paper and corn husks to understand how each material stood up in tests of strength and flexibility that would be required to create alternative uses for these fibers.

Prawira is the second young woman in a row to win the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation. Last year’s winner was Meghna Behari, who developed an “Aquabot” – an automated testing device that can wirelessly collect and transmit data on water quality.

In fact, four of the last five top winners of the Broadcom MASTERS competition have been young women.

It is no accident that outstanding young women are winning these awards. Both the Broadcom Foundation and the Society for Science & the Public, who produces the Broadcom MASTERS competition, insist on parity between young women and men, as well a focus on finding untapped talent and under-represented students in their middle school award pool.

The road to the Broadcom MASTERS is rigorous. 8,000 – 10,000 winning science fair projects are nominated from over 270 Society-Affiliated fairs nationwide. More than 2,500 students completed the application in 2018. A jury of distinguished scientists and engineers select the top 300 projects and the top 30 finalists go to Washington DC to compete in teams for awards, including the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation. In DC, students are judged on their projects, but more importantly, in gender-balanced teams that test their interpersonal skills and creativity in hands-on STEM challenges.

“We have done a lot of work over the past eight years to make sure that the Broadcom MASTERS application resonates with both young men and young women,” says Golden. “Providing the opportunity for students to express themselves is key to gender parity. We ask students to tell us about their aspirations, including which types of careers appeal to them and why. Our data shows that including self-expression gives us an applicant pool with greater gender and ethnic diversity.”

Golden and Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of the Society for Science & the Public, which runs the largest science fair system in the world, agree that the increasing number of female prize winners is due to young women’s natural affinity for 21stcentury skills, including critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration. Young women also bring a fresh lens on how science and engineering can apply in society. Their projects are more socially oriented and are an expression of their personal values.

“We are excited to see more girls enrolling and competing in science fairs and contests and that parents and schools are taking an active role in fostering participation from these young women,” says Ajmera. “Middle school is the best time for girls to engage with science. They are fearless and they are making profound decisions about which roads to take in their studies and their lives.”

The Broadcom MASTERS, along with other science awards and fairs, provide young men and women with the opportunity to compete side by side and for both genders to see young women being acknowledged for academic excellence, creativity and interpersonal skills. Hopefully over the long term this will reduce inherent gender bias and encourage ever-larger numbers of women to start and stay in STEM-related professions.