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STEM career

Flight nurse Casey Thompson straps Washington Middle School sixth-grader Mackayla Kennedy-Harris onto a stretcher as part of a career demonstration day for grade school girls held at the University of Montana on Saturday.

Flight nurse Casey Thompson lifted 11-year-old Mackayla Kennedy-Harris onto the Northwest MedStar stretcher, then buckled her down before rolling the bed around the back of the helicopter at the University of Montana and loading it into the rear doors.

Unlike most times when Thompson and the air ambulance crew arrive on scene, the Washington Middle School sixth grader wasn’t in any danger. Instead, Thompson was one of the presenters at Missoula’s Expanding Your Horizons Conference held at the campus on Saturday.

The event is part of a national movement to hold science, technology, engineering and math-related career introductions for grade school girls, with Missoula’s version now in its second year.

It’s important for girls to learn while they are still young that jobs like this are open to them, Thompson said. When she first joined an air ambulance team, she was one of only three women on the 16 person staff.

“It’s especially true for these young girls to see you can do this,” Thompson said.

Being a flight nurse hasn’t forced her to choose between career and a family either. Thompson, like the other members of the MedStar crew, work a 12-hour and a 24-hour shift each week. Thompson has a young daughter and is pregnant with her second child, she told the group of girls.

She walked them through the gear the helicopter carries when it is deployed, and had the girls try out using a bag valve mask on a mannequin to assist in breathing, and showed them how to intubate a patient who wasn’t.

One of them asked if she ever gets scared while flying.

“I am more nervous driving in my car to work than I am flying in a helicopter,” Thompson responded.

She said her goal every time she goes to work is to “be the best part of someone’s bad day.”

Lisa Blank, a professor of science education at UM, was one of the organizers of the conference.

Studies show that girls’ grades in STEM classes are relatively in parity with those of boys, Blank said, and that trend has continued to stay true into high school and college, but the country is still not seeing that same balance at the professional level.

“Right now, women make up only about 20 percent of STEM jobs,” she said. “It’s just a few more steps to get there.”

Saturday’s activities included 92 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade girls from Missoula area schools, as well as from as far away as Potomac, Polson and Thompson Falls. Blank said they try to bring in new female presenters in STEM-related fields every year so that returning students will be able to hear from new people.

“It’s important for them to see people in their community who are actually doing these jobs,” Blank said.

Activities and presentations included topics like forensics, engineering, geology, architecture and neuroscience.

The day also was a learning activity for Blank’s teacher candidate students, who led each of the school groups around campus. Research shows that as early as the third grade, girls start deciding that there are certain jobs they “can’t do” Blank said. She hopes her students take that idea into classrooms when they become teachers and help to keep options open to girls for as long as possible.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.