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As STEM needs rise, Koch mentors step up

July 9, 2018

min read

With the need for professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM for short) continuing to increase in America, so, too, has the need for educational opportunities in STEM-related areas of study for kids from kindergarten through 12th grade. Unfortunately, and often for reasons beyond their control, not every child has access to the kinds of opportunities that could potentially set them up for success in the sciences. 

Seeing a need in STEM education, STEM professionals from Koch are pitching in to make science engaging for the next generation while working to overcome some of the barriers that currently exist within our educational system. Here’s a closer look at just a couple of the ways Koch employees are contributing on a personal level and banding together cross-company to make a difference.

Giving back to girls in science
Growing up in Wichita, Janelle Reese did not know a single engineer — let alone a woman in the field. She excelled in mathematics and imagined that a job as a teacher might await her after school. But then her perspective shifted.

“I had good teachers that sent me off to an ‘Engineer for a Day’ program back in high school,” said Reese. “That’s how I got where I am.”

Today, as global director of Environmental Health and Safety oversight and assessment for INVISTA, Reese oversees EHS programs across the company’s 30 plants, facilitating audits and analyzing metrics to evaluate plant performance. It’s a position she knows she wouldn’t be in without having the right role models in her life when she was still a girl.

The importance of mentorship opportunities for students interested in the sciences – particularly same-gender mentorships – was highlighted in a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences that determined same-gender mentoring increased confidence, a sense of belonging and, ultimately, retention rates among college students in engineering tracks.1

Reese is now committed to being that sort of mentor to a new generation of young people and encouraging their interests in STEM subjects as the number of careers in these fields continues to grow twice as fast as other professions, and demand for qualified employees has skyrocketed.2

Perhaps more notably, while women match or exceed men in some STEM fields, particularly in healthcare roles (75 percent), they’re still underrepresented in engineering (14 percent), computers (25 percent) and physical science (39 percent).3

But Reese and a group of STEM professionals from across Koch companies hope to change things. This past spring, she joined Koch engineer Kendra Johnson, with help from Koch Ag and Energy Services’ (KAES) Chrissy Follmeyer and INVISTA’s Teresa Oxford, in leading a STEM-focused workshop targeted at young girls.

The event opened its doors to 17 kids (including three boys) interested in STEM at the local Boys and Girls Club in Wichita.

“Organizations that support kids in healthy environments are really important to me,” said Johnson, learning and development leader with KAES. “And it’s important for the girls to see that there are women in our industry who have responsible jobs – it just takes desire, and it’s not out of their reach.”

To make science relevant to kids at this year’s Boys and Girls workshop, Johnson and Reese sought out simple experiments in chemistry, physics and geography using common household ingredients. These included a balloon inflation experiment using baking soda and vinegar, a crash course on compass orienteering, a physics experiment featuring “exploding” sticks and an iodine clock experiment.

More than an introduction to basic science concepts, however, the event also introduced girls to positive female role models in STEM fields, like Reese, Johnson, Follmeyer and Oxford.

“I think it’s especially critical with girls to have someone they can see doing things they might not have otherwise even known about,” said Reese. “It’s important to have that person who says, ‘Hey, you seem to like problem solving, puzzles and mathematics –  have you ever thought about engineering or working in the sciences?’”

Download and print the instructions for all three experiments.

Investing in the next gen of STEM
In Ames, Iowa, Flint Hills Resources’ Biofuels and Ingredients (B&I) division has been working toward the same goal of introducing girls to STEM careers over the last five years.

As a corporate sponsor of the annual Girls in Science Festival at the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines since 2014 – serving as presenting sponsor for 2018 – the organization has committed its time and resources to growing the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Rachel Ryan, communications and community relations manager with Flint Hills B&I, helped establish the relationship between the company and the Science Center.

“There’s a growing need for STEM careers,” said Ryan. “So we want to make sure kids are exposed to these concepts and learning opportunities at an early age. We want to instill that love for science and make sure they’re exposed to these things very early on so it’s not a mystery and it’s not overwhelming.”

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The company has now participated in five consecutive festivals, and the volunteer group from Flint Hills Resources has grown every year. This year, 37 Flint Hills Resources volunteers helped make the event happen, consisting of engineers and environmental, health and safety employees, but also plant operators, lab managers, marketing team members and even friends and family.

They combined efforts to demonstrate different scientific principles to approximately 1,500 Iowa girls ranging from elementary school to college-age students.

This year, Flint Hills B&I brought two new experiments to the festival: one using hydrophilic growing spheres to demonstrate how the company removes water from ethanol, and a station where kids could create homemade lava lamps using food coloring and effervescent tablets.

For Ryan, it was incredibly rewarding seeing employees donate their time and experience for the benefit of others.

“It’s really fulfilling to be involved in the community and show that we’re good community stewards,” said Ryan. “And that we care about helping educate their kids and our kids because, in a sense, we’re all in this together.”


Suggested reading: Want advice for STEM success?