PIQUA — While women are receiving just over half of the undergraduate degrees and certificates awarded in the U.S., there is still representation to be desired throughout areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), highlighting the goal behind the 12th annual We Are It STEM Day conference held Friday at Edison State Community College.
The college invited over 240 girls from 15 local junior high and high schools to help increase awareness and boost interest within STEM career fields. For the first time, Edison State also invited area business leaders to work alongside Edison State educational leaders and STEM instructors in a variety of breakout sessions at the conference.
After the conference woke the students up with a quick dance to the “Cha Cha Slide,” Kirstie Zontini, morning meteorologist for WHIO-TV Channel 7 and AM 1290/News 95.7 WHIO, was the keynote speaker for the event, encouraging students to keep learning and also discussing what it was like being a meteorologist.
“Growing up in Cleveland … she was exposed to all that Ohio had to offer, from strong storms to lake effect snow,” Sandra Streitenberger, STEM committee chairperson and assistant professor of accounting and business at Edison State, said. “It made her curious at a young age as to why we see the weather we see.”
It is not always a choice between the sciences or the humanities when it comes to education or career paths, as Zontini described being interested in science and math but also English.
“There are a lot of careers … that combine, I think, multiple loves for you,” Zontini said. “It lets you split your brain.”
About her own experience, Zontini added, “I definitely liked both sides of school. I liked to write, but I also liked to learn about science.”
Zontini did not have to give up either of those interests as she pursued her career as a broadcast meteorologist. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University in broadcast news with a specialization in meteorology, the science of the atmosphere. From there, she received a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University in geosciences with a concentration in broadcast and operational meteorology.
“I know that since you’re here, school is something that is very much important to you,” Zontini said, encouraging the students to keep working at school and making their education a priority. “It does take you places.”
As a meteorologist with WHIO, Zontini uses both broadcasting skills and her knowledge about the weather to develop daily forecasts and then communicate them to viewers. “I’m always learning something new,” she said. “I love this field.”
In addition to creating daily forecasts, Zontini creates graphics, records radio forecasts, creates videos for social media, and reports out in the field, such as after big weather events.
Zontini also stays up to date on technology, along with weather and environmental events happening across the nation and around the world as the station scientist, noting how Houston, Texas experienced snow Thursday night and Friday morning. Zontini said the last time they got snow was in 2009.
Zontini is finding herself in a male-dominated field, though, as over 70 percent of meteorologists are men.
“In the past two decades, only 25 percent of the weather casters across the country were female,” Zontini said. “This year, when one of our colleagues did this study, it has increased to 29 percent, but that’s it.”
The divide becomes larger when applied to the leadership role of chief meteorologists, of whom only 8 percent are women.
Growing up in Cleveland, though, her community had a female chief meteorologist that she looked up to, showing Zontini that she could pursue a career in weather forecasting.
“I thought she was amazing,” Zontini said.
Other STEM career paths for women see similar patterns. According to statistics from the National Science Board, women make up 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce. Additionally, fewer than one in 10 employed scientists and engineers are minority women.
While women receive over half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, they receive fewer in the computer sciences (17.9 percent), engineering (19.3 percent), physical sciences (39 percent), and mathematics (43.1 percent).
Zontini encouraged the students in attendance not to let that discourage them.
“It’s not something that should scare you,” Zontini said about the broadcast meteorologist statistics she shared. “It’s something that, if this is what you’re interested in, I hope it inspires you to say, ‘I’m going to be another one that joins this field.’”
Zontini also gave tips for the students when it comes to doing well in school and in college, saying, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.” She added that they should not let the class material intimidate them, encouraging the students to create study groups and camaraderie with other students to help learn the classroom material together.
Zontini described her own kind of camaraderie that she found with other female broadcast meteorologists, particularly when female meteorologists across the country decided to wear the same or similar dress for STEM awareness on Pi Day, March 14, after viewers noticed female meteorologists wearing the same dress at different stations across the U.S.
This action was meant as a statement to show, “We’re all women, and we’re all in science. We went to school. Some of us have master’s degrees. We all did four-year degrees. And, you know what, we’re wearing this because we want other women and young ladies like you to keep going in science and math and technology and engineering,” Zontini said.
After her keynote address, students felt inspired by Zontini’s speech.
“I didn’t really know that there weren’t very women in meteorology,” Kerry Copenhaver of Benjamin Logan Schools said. Zontini’s speech also showed them how much science was involved in weather forecasting.
“She’s a very inspiring person,” Hannah Miller of Benjamin Logan Schools said.
Both Copenhaver and Miller were impacted by the confidence with which Zontini spoke. Copenhaver and Miller are both interested in engineering, and both participate in the Youth Robotics First Lego League (FLL) at Benjamin Logan.
“It was really interesting,” Lily Bruggeman of Miami East Junior High School said.
“Her statistics were really surprising,” Courtney Bair, also of Miami East, said.
Marisa Savini, also of Miami East, commented on the camaraderie between the female meteorologists, saying, “I think it’s really cool they have ‘the dress’ and they have their own little support group.”
Bruggeman and Savini are both interested in going into the medical field, and Bair is interested in studying chemistry.
“We’re just trying to get the word out about STEM,” Streitenberger said, noting that the conference was meant to build a foundation in young women to pursue STEM careers.
Edison State President Dr. Doreen Larson also spoke briefly and encouraged the students to connect with the business leaders and STEM instructors at the We Are It conference, saying that they all came there to meet them.
“You are important to them,” Dr. Larson said. “Your participation here today sets you apart, and they want to get to know you.”
Reach Sam Wildow at firstname.lastname@example.org or (937) 451-3336