BENTONVILLE — Thirty high school girls interested in science and engineering had a chance Thursday to meet the adults who will help them reach their career goals.

The students, including freshmen through seniors, signed up to participate in Million Women Mentors, a national initiative to recruit one million volunteer mentors to encourage girls and women to pursue a career related to science, technology, engineering and math — areas of study frequently referred to by the acronym STEM.

STEM-related jobs are plentiful and potentially lucrative, but women make up only about a quarter of the workforce in those fields, according to the Million Women Mentors website. The girls and their mentors met at Bentonville High School’s media center for a “match party.” Gini Cocanower, a computer science teacher at the school, organized the event.  Cocanower had fun with the introductions by assigning each participant a hat that matched the one being worn by their respective mentor or mentee.

“I want you to learn to pronounce and spell each other’s names,” Cocanower told the group. “For some of you, that will be easier than others.”  Mentors and mentees sat together, one on one, for about 20 minutes to get to know each other. Then they all came together as a group to share what they had learned about each other.  Among them was senior Elaine Parker, 18, who intends to study computer coding and business in college and “somehow combine the two” in a career, she said.  “This past summer I went to a coding camp and I found myself really enjoying it,” Parker said.

She appreciated Thursday’s event and the chance to meet her mentor. They swapped information so they can meet to discuss technology and engineering, another interest of hers.

“It’s a great thing. I think it’s a great step for Bentonville. I think they should get the word out even more for more people to find out about this. I think it’s a great opportunity for people,” she said.

Nearly all of the mentors came from Wal-Mart, which has taken the lead for Arkansas in Million Women Mentors. Wal-Mart pledged to recruit 5,000 mentors statewide over the next few years, according to Andrea Roberts, senior manager of STEM strategy at Wal-Mart.

At least 500 mentors across the state are engaged in the program already, Roberts said. At least 14 middle and high schools and universities in Northwest Arkansas are participating, she said.

Nancy Nagle, a director of product development at Wal-Mart, is mentoring Laura Jones. Nagle’s work of developing food products is all about science, she said.

“We use all different aspects of it, whether it’s packaging science, chemistry, biology, we use it all,” she said.

Nagle didn’t have the benefit of a formal program like Million Women Mentors while she was growing up, but she had adults in her life who encouraged her to pursue science. She was often the first woman employee wherever she worked, she said.

“Some of the places didn’t even have a women’s restroom,” Nagle said, with a laugh. “Or the closest one was three floors away because they didn’t plan on having women in the buildings.”

Steve Crumpler, who works in information systems at Wal-Mart, regularly mentors women as part of his job. He agreed to volunteer for Million Women Mentors.

“There’s just not that many women going into the field, and then they leave at a faster rate than men do,” Crumpler said. “So for me it’s really important to catch girls when they’re making up their mind what they want their career to be.”

His mentee, a girl named Virginia, is a freshman. They share an interest in architecture and engineering, which is why he chose to be her mentor.

“She’s interested in making buildings better for people,” he said. “With my work at Wal-Mart, I support the real estate systems, and part of that is designing buildings. So I could probably help set her up with some of the architects and engineers who design Wal-Mart stores and have her go through that so she can see what they do.”

They have tentatively agreed to meet once a month, Crumpler said.

NW News on 02/26/2016