When Columbus East High School graduate Emma Alexander first learned about a circle’s circumference in elementary school, she immediately measured a tree in her backyard and drew up plans for a tree house.
Her elementary school teachers were telling her she should be an author, or a journalist or a teacher.
But Alexander liked science and math.
She overcame the obstacles that prevent many women from entering careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM — including a misconception that girls are not good at computers or math.
Now she is preparing to start college at Purdue University in West Lafayette, where she will major in mechanical engineering — and she won’t have to pay tuition.
Alexander was selected as one of seven students to receive the full-ride Stamps Scholarship, which covers all costs for an undergraduate degree. It also provides $10,000 in enrichment funds, which she said she will likely use to study abroad in Spain.
She hopes to eventually pursue a job in biomedical engineering — maybe in a hospital working with prosthetics — so she can have a direct impact on peoples’ lives.
“Getting that scholarship was kind of a culmination of everything I’ve done so far,” she said.
Among her accomplishments: Graduating second in her class, being named Bartholomew County 4-H Fair queen, participating in Youth Leadership Bartholomew County, winning the Boiler Tech Challenge and participating in many extracurricular activities.
One she is most proud of is her senior project, a convocation about STEM for local middle school students.
She recruited area STEM professionals to present information about science to about 400 students. The segments were short to fit in as many areas as possible. There was a hovercraft, T-shirt cannon, a chemistry experiment and a lesson on neurons.
“I wanted to make them aware of all the opportunities STEM has and make them aware that they can do it,” she said.
Alexander said she’s aware she has an uphill battle herself.
According to the American Association of University Women, only 2,017 women earned degrees in mechanical engineering in 2007, compared with 14,894 men. Only
5.5 percent of mechanical engineers are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Alexander thinks the lack of women in STEM fields is due to a perception that those jobs are for men — she gave a speech about it a few years ago.
But she is not buying into that mindset. And based on conversations with role models in the field, more and more women are overcoming the same obstacles.
“I hear it has gotten better,” Alexander said. “But there’s still a very large percentage of men, and there will be naysayers. That will just motivate me to prove that I can be there, that I belong there.”