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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Dresses' flashing lights aim to attract girls to STEM


Written by Marco Santana

OVIEDO, Fla. — Melissa Saelzer thinks she has found one way to attract more girls into technology careers: fashion.

The 32-year-old Oviedo resident has started work on a line of clothing embedded with sensors, lights and other components she hopes will get girls curious about how they work.

She expects her efforts will be just as much a recruiting tool as they are a fashion statement.

“I’m doing this because it will help girls build confidence so when they want to go into the industry, they already have experience and know how to approach things like programming,” Saelzer said. “This will bring more girls into tech. I want to build a team out with girls who can get excited about doing this.”

Statistics point at an imbalance of men and women in STEM fields. A 2012 National Science Board study reported that despite 47 percent of the population being women, they make up 27 percent of STEM workers.

Saelzer, a systems engineer at Lockheed Martin, said she is excited about jumping into the growing wearable-technology field with her clothing items. Among them are a dress lined with flashing lights timed to music and a lace nightgown embedded with lights that allows the wearer to set its color, brightness and other qualities.

Saelzer said getting girls interested in STEM is a matter of showing them that it applies to many industries, including fashion.

“This is just a small part of it,” she said.

Shayla Mark, a STEM educator in Orange County Public Schools, says keeping girls interested in STEM becomes tougher as they grow older.

“Some don’t think it’s cool to be smart,” she said. “They are more into fashion and those kinds of things. Some also look at what’s being taught in schools and don’t see how it can apply to what they want to be in the future.”

Since 2012, Mark has run Mount Dora-based Stem Chicks Inc., which offers workshops and educational opportunities for girls and women. She said Saelzer’s approach can be part of the solution.

“That is just one angle to approach this with,” she said. “There are those girls interested in fashion, but it doesn’t have to be all sparkles and glitter.”

However, Mark says all of those efforts will only help close the gap between women and men in STEM.

Chief among them is highlighting and promoting women who already have made it in science careers.

“They have this perception of what scientists look like,” she said. “But when children see someone that looks like them, they can relate to them and they understand that it’s possible and attainable.”

Saelzer could be one of those examples. Before she joined Lockheed in October 2012, she worked as an intern in the space industry and as an electrical engineer at General Motors.

Several meetings are set to show off her connected clothing coming up. But, ultimately, Saelzer said her goal is to bring girls and women into the STEM conversation.

“When I give a demonstration, the guys jump right in and try it out,” she said. “For girls, it’s very different. I sometimes have to grab them by the hand and pull them into the conversation.”

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