Miss America gets it.
Even before two finalists eschewed typical song-and-dance performances in favor of science-related monologues last week (standing entertainment critics on their ear) the Miss America competition has recognized the importance of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
Three years ago, the Miss America Foundation began awarding $5,000 scholarships to five state winners with strong STEM backgrounds, acknowledging the need to promote science, technology, engineering, and math education, particularly among women.
“It’s really neat to see the importance of STEM education play out on the national stage,” says James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, a non-profit organization that works to raise awareness about the role STEM education plays in enabling the U.S. to remain the economic and technological leader in the global marketplace.
“It’s great to see women, who are achieving academically and in science becoming role models. It’s proof that you can be a girl, be beautiful, and be a STEM professional at the same time. That strikes at one of the biggest stereotypes that needs to be broken. A big part of educating the public about STEM is the question of how to inspire more women and girls to become involved in STEM careers.”
Brown met with Miss America 2014, Nina Davuluri, shortly after she became the first Miss America to have graduated in a STEM field, with a degree in brain, behavior, and cognitive science from the University of Michigan. During a round table discussion, Davuluri told members of the STEM Education Coalition that she was proud to be a role model to young girls.
“Being smart is cool,” Davuluri said. “I didn’t walk into a role like this overnight, and I would not be as successful without my education and degree, especially with all the meetings and lobbying that you do in this role. . . . I know, when I was in high school, STEM wasn’t an acronym that people were familiar with.”
When it announced its STEM scholarships in 2013, the Miss America Foundation said:
“These scholarships will allow women to pursue numerous careers in the sciences and mathematics, fields that continue to grow exponentially as we enter into a new age of technology and medicine. . . . The lives of women who wish to pursue careers in STEM subjects will significantly change as they engage in dynamic careers where women can thrive and grow as humans, learners, and teachers for future generations.”
The scholarship money was nice. But it wasn’t until this year’s pageant that STEM stole the spotlight, giving families viewing the show an educational topic to consider alongside the glitz and hairstyles.
Last Wednesday, Johnson broke the mold. Rather than sing, play a musical instrument or perform a magic act, Johnson appeared on stage dressed in nurse’s scrubs, a stethoscope around her neck. She told the story of Joe, an Alzheimer’s patient she had tended to in the hospital, and brought tears to viewers’ eyes when she recalled the conversation she had when she found him crying.
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“You are not defined by this disease,” she told him. “You are not just Alzheimer’s. You are still Joe.” Johnson said she was similarly moved when Joe responded: “Nurse Kelley, the same goes for you,” calling her a “lifesaver.”
On her Facebook page, Johnson, who emerged as second runner-up, responded to the post-pageant love she and the nursing profession were receiving. “This is why I did what I did,” she wrote. “This means so much to so many people. I love you, America. Thank you for reaching out to me.” Later she added (in all caps): I was completely myself—nurses all over the nation, we have won!!”
When Westcom’s turn to display talent came the following day, she became the first Miss America contestant to perform a science experiment on the pageant stage.
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Combining physics with chemistry, Westcom mixed potassium iodide, hydrogen peroxide, and dish soap to produce a table-dominating, foamy eruption known as “elephant’s toothpaste.” She also mixed in a little humor: “Don’t try this at home,” she cautioned. “Try it at a friend’s home.”
Westcom, who aspires to be a medical examiner, says she took science to the stage because it reflects who she is. Proud to be labeled a “science nerd,” she labeled her Miss America platform “Success through STEM.”
“I’m so excited to be the first to bring STEM to the Miss America competition,” she told Vermont’s Seven Days newspaper. “I danced and I took singing lessons and it just wasn’t something I could invest myself into.”
Westcom has been traveling to schools in Vermont, teaching science to young students. “When I was going to school and choosing a STEM career, I’d always been told, ‘You don’t look like a scientist’ or ‘Are you sure that’s your career choice? That’s not really for women’. Sometimes little girls can be discouraged by hearing that and redirected into a different career path, which isn’t fair.”
Westcom also thinks the Miss America Foundation deserves credit for the scholarships it provides.
“(It’s) the largest college scholarship program for young women in the United States,” she says. “That means we don’t win cars or furs coats or things like that. We win academic scholarships. That helps us pay off our loans or helps pay for school if we’re still in school. That is something not a lot of people know about.”
Non-finalists who also received STEM scholarships this year were Hannah Roberts, Miss Mississippi, who plans to become a pediatric reconstructive plastic surgeon, Hannah Robison, Miss Tennessee, who is seeking to become a professor of organic chemistry, and Lizzi Jackson, Miss Washington, who aspires to become a digital marketing analyst.
As much as Miss America may remain synonymous with swimsuits and evening attire, Brown believes the tide is turning toward brains, at least in concert with beauty. Recently, he’s repeatedly witnessed state pageant contestants contacting his office for STEM-related ideas.
“The evidence is pretty clear with the Miss America Foundation that this is not an isolated instance of support,” he said. “STEM education is seen as a social challenge and Miss America talks about issues that people care about.”
Brown also thinks it’s good for education. “Remember,” he adds, “the teaching workforce is primarily a women-dominated field, so we need role models for those women.”