A hush fell over a computer lab full of girls at Lopez Elementary as the notes of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star floated out over the room.  

Fifth grader Kenley, face furrowed with concentration but alive with joy, plinked out the tune on lumps of playdough with wires sticking out leading into a small circuit board.   

As she hit the final note, a little cheer went up across the room.   

This is the Fashion Tech Club, a STEM-oriented after-school group designed to get girls interested in the traditionally male-dominated subjects. A grant from the PSD Foundation helped to provide the tools the girls use — including Makey Makey invention kits, design software, and a 3D scanner and computer.   

In another corner of the room, fifth-grader Malia Quiroz sat in front of a computer, peering at what appeared to be an image of Darth Vader superimposed over a rainbow paint splatter.   

"I'm trying to make a wristband that will control the character on the screen when you move, kind of like a Wii," she explains. "So like, when you move your arm, Darth Vader will move his arm too."  

Though she says she's "not the best" with tech, since joining the club a few months ago she's learned how to use the 3D printer, taught other students how to use it, and decided she wants to learn to code.    

That's the kind of thing that media specialist Sarah Weeks and parent volunteer Marie Vans, who collaborated to write grants for the technology, love to see. As a research scientist at Hewlett Packard, Vans knows firsthand that girls are underrepresented in STEM fields.   

"I have my PhD in computer science, and all the way through school there were no girls in my classes. I feel really strongly about getting girls interested in STEM, because of some of the roadblocks that I've had in my own career," she says.   

She's hoping that the work Lopez is doing to expose girls to STEM early will set an example locally for other schools.  

"We know from research that if girls see in elementary school that STEM is not nerdy, that it's something they can do, that they're more likely to pursue STEM careers later on," Vans says.  

Lopez is just one school in the district implementing unique approaches to get girls interested in science. 

At Shepardson Elementary, every single student, starting in kindergarten, has opportunities to explore a makerspace full of robots, sewing machines and invention kits. At Tavelli Elementary, teachers are blending art and science into unique circuit art projects that let girls access their creativity. At Preston Middle School, connecting STEM learning to real-world outcomes through the Engineering Brightness program has proved to be the key to motivating girls to learn to solder and code. 

And though the end goal is to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers, the process is about helping each person to develop to her whole potential.  

"We want girls to feel empowered and find their voices," Weeks says.

The Big Picture with Dr. Smyser: PSD prepares students for the real world

When Sandra Smyser was 13—before she became a doctor or a superintendent or a teacher—she was a babysitter.   

And she was the only kid in the neighborhood comfortable looking after two children who had profound autism.   

"Back then, most people didn't know what autism was," she explains. "But I realized I had a knack for taking care of kids with autism. I could figure out how to help."   

As she entered high school, she began connecting with more opportunities to work with people with disabilities. She worked as a paraprofessional in the summer and with a program for adults during the school year. Someone connected her with a job raising money for the Special Olympics. Slowly, she began to move towards her career path, eventually earning a doctoral degree in special education.   

Now, as superintendent, she's passionate about helping the 30,000 students in the district to explore and connect with their potential career paths.   

"We want students to have a realistic view of what the job market is, and what work is like. In all of our schools, we're developing and trying new options to give students more experiences so they are better prepared to make career decisions for themselves," she says.  

Sometimes, those experiences are internships with local community partners. Other times, it's encouraging high school students to explore free college classes or bringing professionals to campus to share their knowledge.

Providing a wide-range of career exploration options is one of the key goals identified by Sheila Pottorff, who filled the newly created position of Director of Post-Secondary and Workforce Readiness this year.   

"We want to help students know who they are, so they can make informed decisions as they make their learning journey through PSD," Pottorff says.   

To do so, the district relies on community partners who open their doors and volunteer their time to give students a preview of their dream careers. Those real-world experiences allow students to apply the skills and knowledge they've learned in an academic setting, and helps them acquire essential skills like time management and organization.   

"Our District Ends focus on developing every aspect of each student, from their academic knowledge to their social and emotional skills and their post-high school plans," Smyser says. "It's about being ready for everything that comes after graduation."   

For more information on PWR programs or to volunteer to host a student in your business, please email Sheila Pottorff at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


PSD Calendar of Events

March 13-17, Spring Break, No school K-12

March 21, 6:30pm, Board of Education business meeting, JSSC, 2407 Laporte Ave.