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‘Physics Girl’ Tells How She Makes Kids Love STEM

The expert educator talks to U.S. News about her career in STEM and how to get kids interested in science.

In many ways, Dianna Cowern is the quintessential role model STEM education advocates have been searching for.

She’s young, female and a successful college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in physics from a prestigious university. And she understands the urgent need to make science, technology, engineering and math fun and appealing to young students.

“The main reason it’s important to have more women in the ‘hard’ sciences, like chemistry and physics, is that they’re underrepresented now,” Cowern recently told curiosity.com. “We’re missing out on a huge portion of the population that could be contributing to research and engineering.”

[READ: 2015 STEM Index Shows Gender, Racial Gaps Widen]

When it comes to STEM, kids – especially girls – aren’t always encouraged to follow their hearts.

“I spent a lot of my childhood trying to hide I like science and math,” Cowern told a panel during the 2015 U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference in San Diego.

Her parents and teachers, however, inspired her to embrace her interests.

“They took me to science museums, they took me to math competitions,” Cowern said. “And eventually I got a degree in physics. It was that encouragement and that push for curiosity.”

Nicknamed “happy pants” in college, Cowern researched dark matter with professor Jocelyn Monroe as an undergraduate at MIT, and low-metallicity stars with professor Anna Frebel as a post-baccalaureate research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, before heading to GE where she worked as a software engineer designing mobile apps.
After struggling to find a way to put her physics degree to good use, Cowern created a YouTube channel featuring videos that teach different physics concepts in an engaging way – using a stacked ball drop to explain properties of a supernova, or explaining the physics behind a curveball with soccer, for example.

Cowern says her explanatory videos are “looking at the world around you and asking questions, and trying to explore different areas of physics.”

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U.S. News sat down with Cowern during the STEM Solutions Conference recently to talk about her inspiration for pursing STEM, why she thinks it’s important to engage more students and what her future plans are for Physics Girl and STEM education.

[READ: Parents Key in Attracting Girls to STEM]

“There’s this stereotype of being uncool when you’re thought of as a science nerd, but I’ve come to embrace that and … tried to change that and show that really anyone can be a science nerd – there’s really no negative connotation to that,” she says.

While her reach on YouTube continues to grow, Cowern says she’d love to reach a younger demographic. Right now, the average age of her YouTube audience is about 40. “There are a lot of teachers that are about that age and hopefully they’re sharing [the videos] with their classrooms, or it’s parents sharing them with their kids,” she explains.

Aiming younger, though, just makes sense.

“The more of that [younger] audience I can reach, the more that I’ll get to those kids who I’m trying to encourage to start to explore STEM and explore science and physics at a younger and younger age.”

Watch her full interview with U.S. News below.

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