A Hartland teen and the reigning “Miss New Brunswick” is taking it upon herself to spread the word to other girls that they can have future careers in science.
Kristen Culberson, who wants to be an engineer, has formed an organization called She Can Change the World: Girls in STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Having two unlikely things combined, like beauty pageants and engineering, has really helped me understand who I am and understand where my interests lie and just give me a more complex view of what it means to be a girl,” the Grade 12 student said in an interview.
Culberson plans to hold five STEM sessions next month for girls in Grades 3 to 6 in communities along the Upper St. John River Valley.
“To see so many little girls who are like me and excited about these things is just amazing,” said Culberson.
More than 40 girls have signed up for the sessions so far, she said, and there is room for others.
“I’m really excited to be able to hopefully encourage some people and to inspire these young girls and to tell them that science and math can be so fun.”
Culberson has come up with hands-on science demonstrations for the sessions, using circuit boards, kinetic machines and hydro power.
There will also be presentations by women from Perth-Andover and Woodstock who work in STEM.
Conference opened her eyes
Culberson said her eyes were opened to a world of possibilities during a conference in Fredericton in November called Girls STEM Up, which featured female guest speakers who work or study in science fields.
“It’s a little bit intimidating to go into a male-dominated career without seeing people do it before you. So, when I had those role models and I was able to see women succeeding in STEM, I think it really, really inspired me.”
Culberson, a student at Hartland Community School, plans to study engineering next fall at the University of New Brunswick.
“I have what I call a math brain, where it just kind of clicks with me.”
She was thinking of going into medicine but changed her mind when she started doing more applied science such as physics and chemistry in Grade 11.
“I wanted to do something more hands on, which led me to the idea of biomedical engineering.”
Rural students face challenge
Culberson said she had to do a lot of research on her own to figure that out.
“I think in general when you live in a rural area it’s harder overall to understand what your options are … especially in the STEM field.”
“When I look around at the careers that I see, it’s like nurses, teachers and trades.”
She did, however, have an older sister for inspiration.
20-year-old Abby Culberson studied forest management at the Maritime College of Forest Technology and is continuing her studies in that male-dominated STEM field at UNB.
“It was really impressive to me to see her go into an environment where she was such a minority.”
Kristen said she thinks there is still an unconscious bias that STEM jobs are male jobs.
Fewer people to emulate
She thinks that may be more pronounced in small towns, in part because of the numbers game. Lower populations mean fewer people breaking the mould and challenging unspoken, outdated notions about gender roles.
But that’s not the only stereotype she wants to smash.
She’s also redefining the role of beauty queen.
I don’t think you should ever change who you are and what your interests are to match up with who people expect you to be.– Kristen Culberson
“I think it’s less about beauty and more about an ambassadorship,” she said of her Miss New Brunswick title.
Culberson said a good portion of the pageant scoring is based on elements such as interview performance.
“I’m not going to say that I hate the beauty and the glitz and the glamour, because I really love the dresses and the makeup and the hair and that kind of side of it.”
It can be tricky for someone who is “really feminine” to work and be treated with respect in a male-dominated environment, said Culberson.
But she thinks it’s a “battle worth fighting.”
“If wearing makeup and dressing up is how you feel confident, then why not do it?
“I don’t think you should ever change who you are and what your interests are to match up with who people expect you to be.”
Pageants can be useful
She also thinks pageants can provide a useful platform.
Culberson said that through the Miss Hartland and Miss New Brunswick pageants, she was able to develop leadership and performance skills, learn to talk about herself in a positive way and launch her STEM initiative.
Culberson’s STEM sessions are being sponsored by a private donation from Brian McCain.
They are scheduled to take place in Perth-Andover, Hartland, Florenceville-Bristol, Woodstock and Nackawic throughout the month of February.
Registration is through her Facebook page “She Can Change the World: Girls in STEM,” or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.