Middle school students experience STEM at Women in Science conference

Hundreds of middle school girls from 16 different schools gathered at Black Hills State University Wednesday for the third annual Women in Science conference. Pioneer photo by Wendy Pitlick

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SPEARFISH — Middle school students were challenged to step outside of their comfort zone to achieve great things at the third annual Women in Science Conference, Wednesday.

Held at Black Hills State University, the conference kicked off with keynote speaker Erin Fagnan, who holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and environmental science, as well as a master’s degree in civil engineering. Fagnan began her career as an engineer with the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, but then left that to join the South Dakota National Guard, for which she eventually became the state’s first female drill sergeant.

“It all starts with deliberately choosing to get outside of my comfort zone,” Fagnan told the students from 16 schools across the Northern Black Hills and parts of Wyoming. “It’s not easy and sometimes extremely hard to do. But I’m here to tell you the rewards are incredibly worth it.

“It’s OK to be a little scared to try new things,” she continued. “Because when you do, when you take that step to try something new, it builds confidence. At the end of it is a new goal and something you never thought possible before.”

Following Fagnan’s motivational speech that effectively fired students up for science, the day was filled with visiting booths that highlighted multiple opportunities in STEM fields at the Donald E. Young Center Fieldhouse. Breakout sessions throughout the BHSU campus were led by at least 50 experts in multiple science, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

“Our goal is just to expose young women to the diverse careers that are available to them,” said organizer Dr. Katrina Jensen, a chemistry instructor at BHSU. “They might think of a scientist as someone who works in a lab, or they may know that in order to be a doctor they have to take lots of sciences. But they don’t know about all the things they can do with science, engineering or math. So, we’re just trying to introduce them to the variety of different careers that they can do.”

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