Girls won all five top prizes in national STEM contest for middle schoolers

Fourteen-year-old Alaina Gassler had noticed her mother struggling with blind spots while driving their family's car. Though not even old enough to drive herself, the Pennsylvania middle schooler designed a system that uses a webcam to display obstacles blocking a driver's line of sight to make driving safer.

Last week, that design project earned Gassler the $25,000 Samueli Foundation Prize, the top award in the 2019 Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology, and Engineering for Rising Stars) competition.


"Congratulations to Alaina, whose project has the potential to decrease the number of automobile accidents by reducing blind spots," said Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of the Society for Science & the Public and Publisher of Science News. "With so many challenges in our world, Alaina and her fellow Broadcom MASTERS finalists make me optimistic. I am proud to lead an organization that is inspiring so many young people, especially girls, to continue to innovate."

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Indeed, Gassler wasn't the only girl to shine in the national contest. All five top awards were won by 14-year-old girls, with projects ranging from trapping invasive species to improving water filtration systems to designing bricks that could be used to build on Mars.

The five winners were chosen from 30 finalists selected from 2,348 applicants in 47 states by a panel of distinguished scientists, engineers and educators. This year, 60% of the finalists were female—a first for the competition. That's an encouraging sign for the STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) field, in which women are still underrepresented.

"Congratulations to all our amazing finalists!" said Paula Golden, President of the Broadcom Foundation. "It is exciting to see so many young women scientists and engineers – 60% – in the competition this year. I believe that this bodes well for achieving greater gender equity in future STEM careers."

While the results of this competition are promising, research shows that it's not necessarily initial interest and involvement in STEM that's the problem—it's that women tend to slip out of the STEM career pipeline somewhere along the way. Nonetheless, a solid foundation in STEM and early achievements and accolades may encourage more girls to stick with their science and engineering pursuits.

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Congratulations to the top five winners:

The Samueli Foundation Prize: $25,000
Alaina Gassler,
Improving Automobile Safety by Removing Blindspots

Lemelson Award for Invention: $10,000
Rachel Bergey,
Spotted Lanternflies: Stick'em or Trick'em

Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation: $10,000
Sidor Clare,
Bound and Bricked

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Award for Health Advancement: $10,000
Alexis MacAvoy,
Designing Efficient, Low-Cost, Eco-Friendly Activated Carbon for Removal of Heavy Metals from Water

STEM Talent Award, sponsored by DoD STEM: $10,000
Lauren Ejiaga,
Ozone Depletion: How it Affects Us

What an inspiring lineup of young women working to make our lives better through science and technology. Though women still have an uphill climb to achieve gender parity in STEM fields, the future is looking bright in these kids' hands.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

4-year-old New Zealand boy and police share toys.

Sometimes the adorableness of small children is almost too much to take.

According to the New Zealand Police, a 4-year-old called the country's emergency number to report that he had some toys for them—and that's only the first cute thing to happen in this story.

After calling 111 (the New Zealand equivalent to 911), the preschooler told the "police lady" who answered the call that he had some toys for her. "Come over and see them!" he said to her.

The dispatcher asked where he was, and then the boy's father picked up. He explained that the kids' mother was sick and the boy had made the call while he was attending to the other child. After confirming that there was no emergency—all in a remarkably calm exchange—the call was ended. The whole exchange was so sweet and innocent.

But then it went to another level of wholesome. The dispatcher put out a call to the police units asking if anyone was available to go look at the 4-year-old's toys. And an officer responded in the affirmative as if this were a totally normal occurrence.

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