Seventh-grader Jaya McGregor considers a question from Sarah Beethe, a PhD student in geology at Oregon State University who presented via Zoom to the class. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Seventh-grader Jaya McGregor considers a question from Sarah Beethe, a PhD student in geology at Oregon State University who presented via Zoom to the class. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Jamie Alfieri Tuss, a Valley Catholic alumna, never thought her career would be in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field. “I really struggled in science and math in school,” she said. “I figured I’d be a starving artist.”

Tuss is now a Big Ten Football official and instant replay communicator. She’s developed innovative methods of utilizing video and technology to enhance football for participants and viewers.

“I’m a creative person who found a technological career,” she said.

Tuss was one of more than a dozen scientists and technology, engineering and math professionals who presented to Valley Catholic Middle School students March 30. Like Tuss, many of the presenters were alums and many presented via Zoom.

The day, Tuss thought, was a great way to show students just how varied and creative opportunities are in those fields.

Presenters included a marine biologist, a director of sustainability/agriculture teacher, a transportation and construction engineer, and an expert in venture capitalism and health care technology. There were women who were still grad students, one in ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences and one in geology.

Eighth graders waited their turn to do relay races and ball kicks where they could calculate percentages of success and time. The outside field and indoor gyms buzzed with chat and, especially outside, in the warm spring air, the students were having a great time.

Inside, sixth graders eyed the earthquake demonstration models on their classroom tables as Brad Alston from OMSI explained the difference between P waves and S waves.

Down the hall, a class of seventh graders listened to Sarah Beethe, a PhD student in geology at Oregon State University, explain that despite growing up in the outdoors in Alaska and Colorado — including panning for gold — it had never occurred to her that she could be a geologist. In college she at first avoided math and science courses, instead studying what she was good at, not what she was interested in. She’s grateful that she had to take a science course in order to graduate. She still remembers being amazed by the mighty force of the tiny molecular bonds that keep the world from flying apart.

She never looked back.

The day was part of Valley Catholic’s dedication to STEM, in particular for girls, who are still playing catchup in the fields.

Only 11% of girls 13-17 plan to pursue careers in STEM fields, compared to 35% of boys.

Women make up only 28% of the workforce in STEM workplaces — but those women earn 28% more than women in other fields.

“Girls should know it’s an option for them,” current student Agamya Guttal told a KGW reporter, who was there covering the day’s events. "I think it's really important that girls my age, who are going into high school and have to start thinking about what they're going to do with their lives, see these careers."

Melissa Iserson, director of design thinking at Valley Catholic Middle School, organized the day.

“The day was created so the kids could see how STEM and the principles they’re learning in the classroom relate to real careers,” said Iserson.

Organizations represented by mostly women professionals included the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, Intel, the Museum of Flight, Nike and Oregon Health and Science University.

Alumna Caitlin Blood, whose degree is in sociology and who teaches sustainability and agriculture at MITCH Charter School in Tualatin, challenged the STEM-immersed students with questions about human nature that technology cannot solve.

“The message I conveyed was that STEM is about solutions, and those solutions are informed by human choice,” she said afterward. “I showed them the social and ecological impact of globalization of our food system, specifically through their food miles, the distance their food travels from farm to plate.”

Blood hopes the students “will ask more questions about why societies are the way they are, who systems work for and who they don’t, and what daily choices they can make to change them for the better.”

Iserson points out that the school’s enduring dedication to STEM is well illustrated by the fact that in 2018 Valley Catholic Middle School became the first school in Oregon to become accredited as a STEM-focused institution through COGNIA’s evidence and performance-based standards.

Iserson said Valley Catholics Middle School’s 298 students benefit from more hands-on projects that are structured to allow students their age to explore STEM.

“Courses are more science focused and tech driven,” she said. “We focus on critical thinking, with an emphasis on collaboration.”

That has been enhanced by the $25,000 grant from the Marie Lamfrom Charitable Foundation, which financed both the day and the 3-D printer upon which students made coasters marking their Women in STEM event.