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My Experience with STEAM Town USA

“For me, sharing my love for science and engineering with the girls is perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of my job and my life.”

– A testimony from Melissa K. Cassel, STEAM Town USA Volunteer


Melissa K. Cassel

Facilities Planner, ExxonMobil

Why STEAM Town USA is important: role models, STEM education, and project-based learning

To many who know my parents, a computer scientist and civil engineer, it may seem to be no surprise that I, too, am an engineer. However, as a child, what I wanted to be when I grew up closely mimicked the women in my life who I viewed as role models. At 6, I wanted to be a violinist like my older cousin, Laura, and by 12, I wanted to be a veterinarian like our family friend and veterinarian, Dr. McKinstry.

However, in high school, I attended an engineering event for high school girls at UPenn hosted by current female students in engineering. The students I met at the event did not resemble the awkward engineers I saw on TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, but instead, they were like me and became my mentors and role models in high school. It was then that I finally decided I would be an engineer. As someone who was raised by two engaged and involved parents who encouraged me to pursue math and science, why did it take me so long to decide I want to study chemical engineering and become a chemical engineer?

My colleague, Samantha Albright, and I explored the topic of STEM education’s inability to reach women and minorities after building and growing the STEAM Town USA program in Baytown. We were selected from over 1000 abstracts to present our findings at last year’s National Society of Women Engineers Conference, WE17, in Austin, which I will summarize below.

We were intrigued to find that 20% of all U.S. jobs require a high level of knowledge in any one STEM field and that STEM job growth continues to outpace all other job growth at rates that cannot continue to be filled by the current demographics in STEM (predominantly male and predominantly white and Asian), or more simply, as Dr. Freda Kapor Klein explains: “The nation is suffering from a lack of full participation in STEM.” Although University of Wisconsin Professor Janet Hyde has shown that there is no statistically significant difference in one’s mathematical ability based on gender, another study by Accenture has shown that 60% of girls believe that STEM subjects are too difficult to learn, and therefore we lose women in engineering before they even give STEM careers a chance.

This belief that STEM subjects are too difficult to learn is grounded in how we raise girls, compared to boys. Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, argues that girls (and women) are disproportionally harmed by fixed mindsets, the view that skill and knowledge is innate and cannot be increased, contrasted with growth mindsets, the view that one can learn anything if they put in the work, practice, and effort. This is because, as early as elementary school, parents and teachers tend to provide boys – who are more prone to acting out – with effort-based feedback when they fail (“try harder”) and ability-based feedback when they succeed. Meanwhile girls are more likely to receive feedback that their failures are based on ability and success due to good behavior, rather than ability or effort.

And because of this fixed mindset, women are more likely to drop out of STEM and other challenging subjects if they perceive they do not have the innate ability to succeed in STEM. In fact, Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard, wanted to explore why men outnumber women in economics 3:1. To her surprise, she discovered that women who earned Bs were half as likely as those who earned As in introductory economics to continue to study economics. However, men who earned Bs were just as likely as men who earned As to continue to study economics. It’s no secret that economics, as well as STEM disciplines, grade on a tough curve, but this curve means that women are self-selecting out of STEM because they fear delivering imperfection in these ‘hard’ fields.

In STEAM Town USA, we work with 12-15 3rd grade girls at four schools in Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District every month on comprehensive hands-on STEAM projects that deliver value and understanding through applied learning, teamwork, and project-based learning. STEAM education, or Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, seeks to engage students to show them what engineering really is: having a passion for solving problems and understanding how and why things work.  Our volunteers, primarily 20-35 year old female engineers, scientists, and college students, seek to demonstrate that STEM careers are accessible to girls, defying stereotypes that boys and men only have the math and science aptitude that is critical to success in STEM.  Furthermore, engaging the A (for Arts) in STEAM challenges students to not just be good scientists and engineers, but also to think innovatively, communicate effectively, and market and present their ideas to their peers, teachers, and volunteers.

One of the most important parts of the STEAM Town USA program is providing STEM mentors for the students. When I was in college at the University of Minnesota, the university screened the documentary, Miss Representation, which centered on the quote, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and discussed how young girls and women need and want positive role models, but that the media has neglected its unique opportunity to provide them (think The Big Bang Theory). Without STEM role models, girls fail to recognize STEM fields as welcoming careers for women. Just as it took my STEM role models at UPenn to show me that engineering was an exciting career and welcoming to women, my team of volunteers and I make it a priority to be STEM role models and develop relationships with these girls, so they are encouraged when challenged and do not fear failure.

I am always encouraged by the growth of STEAM Town USA.  As a result of our talk at the SWE Conference last year, Kohler’s engineering outreach organization is developing a STEAM Town USA program for Wisconsin elementary schools, and one of my colleagues in Brazil is looking to bring components of STEAM Town USA to her city.


My experience with STEAM Town USA

I fell in love with the STEAM Town USA program back in 2016.  It had been less than a year since I started my full time job with ExxonMobil, and I was attending a women’s lunch for the United Way, which featured guest speaker, Suzan Deison, CEO, President, and Founder of the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce.

She discussed many topics, but when she discussed a STEM and Arts after school outreach program for third grade girls in 10 schools in HISD, Conroe, and Spring, whose only constraint to growth was volunteers, I knew I had found my calling to bring STEAM Town USA to the community surrounding my workplace in Baytown, Texas.

I remember our first session at Travis Elementary our first year – the girls seemed a little skeptical of the program asking questions like why they had to stay after school and do more work when they could be at home playing, and then we got to the first activity where they are asked to do long division to estimate the number of homes needed in a town with a given population.

We received a lot of random guesses and “I don’t know”s and even some blank stares.  The teacher in the classroom said, “They don’t learn long division in the third grade.”  But just because they don’t doesn’t mean they can’t.  Within 10 minutes or so, we simplified the problem so that the girls could solve it and apply it to the other problems.  In future after school sessions, the girls applied what they had learned and determined the cost of making puppy shampoo and at what price it should be sold from the price and quantity of its ingredients and the value of their labor.

In a later unit on renewable and nonrenewable resources, the girls determined how many hours they would have to work to pay for gasoline to travel a certain distance with cars of different MPG ratings (Lamborghinis and Ford F-150s were popular initial selections until they realized they could work fewer hours to pay for gas if they drove a sedan).

All of these problems are problems they wouldn’t learn how to solve in third grade if it weren’t for STEAM Town USA.  By the end of the year, all girls had developed a love for the program and therefore a love for STEAM education.  The project-based learning opportunities and community application drove the girls to see how careers in STEM can help them make an impact on their community.

At the end of the year, I had a guidance counselor send me an email.  She wrote that one of the girls had just moved to the school that year and spoke little English.  Because of the mentorship of our volunteers and the camaraderie of a small group of 11 other third grade girls in the STEAM Town program, the guidance counselor told me that she had “blossomed” during the school year.

I remembered working with that student.  She was quiet at first, but perhaps one of the best and quickest in the class when it came to solving the math problems, and at the end of the year, she was one of the students who presented on STEAM Town USA at Graduation. Overall, we have seen all of the girls’ confidence increase, as well as their willingness to participate and answer questions.

When we returned the following year to Travis Elementary to work with a new group of girls, we saw the previous year’s students asking us if they could do STEAM Town USA again.  The new group of girls, rather than begrudgingly seeing STEAM Town USA as extra homework as the first group did initially, had heard about STEAM Town USA from the older students, and when asked what they would be doing in the first class, they enthusiastically said that they would be learning about science!

The students’ enthusiasm has been incredibly contagious, and after just 1 year at Travis, I was asked to bring the program to three additional schools in Goose Creek.  With the help of ExxonMobil engineers and Lee College physics students and faculty, we have been able to work together to bring monthly STEAM outreach to about 50 students in Baytown each year.

For me, sharing my love for science and engineering with the girls is perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of my job and my life.

STEAM Town USA is an after-school program that seeks to increase exposure of third grade girls to STEAM concepts,improve grades and graduation rates, and encourage girls to pursue STEAM careers. The program serves Conroe, Houston,Goose Creek and Spring Branch school districts. We have graduated over 1,500 girls from the program since its inception.


Girls in STEM STEAM Town USA program is an after‐school program that seeks to increase exposure of third grade girls to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) concepts, improve grades and graduation rates, and encourage girls to pursue STEAM careers. The program serves Conroe, Houston, and Spring Branch School Districts. We have graduated over 600 girls from the program since its inception. This video shows some of the girls who participated in the 2017 Annual Awards Luncheon. Read more...

The Connection July Issue: Women Creating Commerce

Many women contribute to the Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, VP of Strategy Ashley McPhail, Associate Director of Clinical Partnerships Morgan Brown and Innovation Strategist Emily Reiser are part of the Due Diligence Team. Houston Methodist’s Chair of Surgery Dr Barbara Bass and TMC Venture Fund’s Director Juliana Garaizar are part of the Investment Committee.

The TMC Venture Fund has invested in 2 women-led companies and both are part of the best performing companies in its portfolio. Dr. Emma Fauss moved to Houston to develop Medical Informatics. Its company has been thriving ever since to the point of outgrowing the at the TMCx+ co-working space since she successfully raised more than $10M from Silicon Valley investors including Intel. Dr. Michelle Longmire launched a virtual clinical trial platform Medable three years ago and with $5M in bookings has raised more than $30M and has a global partnership with clinical research company PPD.



The women of Houston are leaders that are willing to be connectors. The most enlightened conversations have been around me sharing my personal story, not the glossy profile story that we write for the biographical accounts. They have instead engaged me on a very personal level. Their willingness to share your accomplishments when you are not in the room equates to success! One key driver of how men are able to achieve career and community success is that someone is willing to be a promoter when they are not in the room. The women of Houston are supportive and provide great coaching for navigating the business community. Houston has allowed me to build relationships with female leaders that are positive and very engaging. Houston may appear large at first, yet upon additional review it is really a tight network of Women leaders that are truly impactful connectors.



For someone entering law school, my advice would be as follows: Network! Network! Network!  I see so many law students in law school keep their heads down and do nothing else but study.  While a good GPA is great for landing that first job or getting on law review, having a broad network of people to call upon is essential in the practice of law (and generally in life).  I would encourage any new law student to join her local bar associations. In Houston, we are lucky in that we have so many great associations from which to choose.  Many of the bar associations also have free memberships for law students and offer formal mentorship programs with practicing attorneys, so there is no reason not to join.  Make contacts. Find resources. Find opportunities.



Please share one way the GHWCC has helped you

GHWCC has connected me to so many wonderful woman across all industries within the greater Houston area.  I moved here as a new Houstonian and the GHWCC was the perfect place to go to get integrated into the Houston community. I’ve always worked to give back and as a result of what the GHWCC has given me, I’ve felt responsible to pass it forward to a number of other members of the chapter who have reached out to me for advice or counsel. I feel privileged that I’ve been there for them to address their career or business needs.  The connectivity is unreal at the GHWCC.  I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for deeper connections within the Houston area. 



Please share one way the GHWCC has helped you 
The GHWCC has helped me by expanding my network of executive women and business owners in an array of industries with whom I have built relationships both personally and professionally. I have been very involved in GHWCC’s affiliation with Golden Seeds, Angel Investment Network, and through this platform have made valuable connections to investors, start up founders and others within the startup ecosystem in Texas and throughout the country.



Please share one way the GHWCC has helped you

GHWCC and the women I’ve met through it helped me finish my book and launch a second business that I’d been thinking of doing, but afraid to take the risk.  It is an incredibly supportive environment of successful business-people who encourage women to take risks and reach for their professional goals. As a representative of the University of Houston, GHWCC has provided a wonderful forum to connect growing businesses with young people for internships, mentorship, jobs and academic projects.  I love that GHWCC actively promotes the next generation of women in business.




Please share one way the GHWCC has helped you

I am truly grateful for the GHWCC providing endless opportunities for young ladies. The STEAM Town USA program has helped to provide STEM exposure to girls and build their confidence level. In role as an educator, I know the challenges that young ladies face when it comes to Science and Math. So to have an organization such as, GHWCC to take the time out to mentor and provide STEAM hands on activities for young ladies, is truly amazing. For me personally, I have benefited from GHWCC networking events and luncheons by learning from other professional women how to grow in my professional career. I find myself sharing all the great ideas, opportunities, and resources that I have learned from GHWCC. I am so glad that I have the opportunity to be included and surrounded by professional women who I can learn from in GHWCC. 



What Does it Mean to be a Role Model?

September is the month of our annual Women in the Fast Lane of STEAM Luncheon! In celebration, we asked some of our 2018 STEAM Role Models to speak on the importance of their respective STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) categories, and what they think it means to be a role model. 



Can you speak about the importance of Science and supporting women in Science?
“At a time when the very concept of science is being politicized, it is more important than ever that all people – especially from a young age – are exposed to the scientific method, and develop an appreciation for the methodical rigor required to develop and support scientific theories. In addition to enhancing diversity among scientists, data suggests that women tend to work very well in collaborative and team-based settings, which is how scientific research is conducted. It is critical to support women in Science because our perspectives and work open doors to new ways of viewing the world, researching how it works, and sharing our findings.”

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a role model?
“A role model demonstrates the key elements of being a strong (woman) leader – leading from the bottom up, demonstrating confidence, knowledge and empathy, and carrying a passion for using a career in STEAM to better our Houston community and beyond!”



Can you speak about the importance of Technology and supporting women in Technology?
“There is a technology gender imbalance.  It is important to support women in technology because women bring a fresh perspective and insight based on their experiences. An investment in both hiring and retaining more women actually leads to growth and greater returns for companies. Innovation-focused companies are $44 million more valuable on average when women hold their positions of power.”

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a role model?
“My definition of a role model is someone who you can look up to and aspire to be like, someone that truly makes an impact, someone who makes you want to be a better person.”



Can you speak about the importance of Engineering and supporting women in Engineering?
“Engineering touches everything in our daily lives. Products must be designed and evaluated by a diverse group of people to ensure that the product meets the needs of the customers. It is good business to to have women as part of the innovation and design process for increased return on investment. Companies realize the importance of women and minorities in design and technology. We have to invest in girls and sometimes gently nudge and sometimes push girls into STEM careers because it is not only good for the female it is great for our society.”

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a role model?
“Being a role model means that you understand that people are always watching and your words and actions are important.  It also means that you have to be generous with your time and money.  It means you are teaching, coaching and setting examples.  Role models change lives and let’s others know that goals are obtainable and that is a huge responsibility that cannot be taken lightly.”



Can you speak about the importance of Arts and supporting women in Arts?
“Over the past few decades, there has been a growing movement in public education and government circles to cut funding to the arts.  This is unfortunate because the arts have a very tangible, measurable, and essential impact on our lives. Not only does art improve cultural awareness, visual learning, language development and motor skills, but students who study art also have a significant increase in math, reading and standardized test scores.  The arts enrich all of us– sometimes in ways we would never suspect.”

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a role model?
“I believe a role model is a person that others respect or admire with personality traits, qualities or accomplishments that others perceive as positive.  A role model has these traits that others would like to emulate or copy to lead to success.  Having role models is very important to young, impressionable children and youth.  As a young child my grandmother was my role model–she was strong, independent, hard worker and mother.  She was also blind.  She never let her lack of being able to see keep her from achieving her goals.  All children especially young girls need role models.  My grandmother was a house mother at, Hardin House-a dorm at University of Texas.  She always encouraged me to go to college.  In 1995, I was accepted to the University of Texas, but I could not afford to enroll.  Much later, I was able to go to University of Houston and receive my Bachelors in Psychology and later my Masters at Rice University in Liberal Studies.  I am so thankful for my grandmother who was my role model.  I would like to help other young girls like my grandmother helped me.  I believe that education is very important for everyone, but especially young girls.  I am very honored for the opportunity to be a STEAM role model and help young ladies achieve their dream of education and scholarships.  My grandmother was blind but she could see the importance of education for young girls.  Because she was such a great role model for me and taught me that education for women is power, I would like to help other girls follow their educational dreams.”



Can you speak about the importance of Math and supporting women in Math?
“Math is important for many reasons, especially when regarding finance. Understanding how to manage finances will help women personally and is crucial when it comes to their business success. Math is critical in helping with a financial plan and a budget, which is the most effective way to manage and save money.”

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a role model?
“A role model is a person who serves as a positive example to others. Everyone has an opportunity to be a role model in some way by encouraging others in their lives.  As a parent, it’s my goal to become a positive role model for my daughter and to other young women.”


Our Women in the Fast Lane of STEAM Luncheon and Style Show was featured in an insert published by the Houston Chronicle! The insert covers everything you need to know about the GHWCC from our Board Members, Program of Work and upcoming events, all 40 of our 2018 STEAM ROLE MODELS, and much more!




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