‘Celebrating Women of Physical Science’ Event Focuses on Rocket Science

The Department of Chemistry and Physics hosted the third annual Celebrating the Women of Physical Science outreach event on Monday, Nov. 4.  In honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, the theme of the event this year focused on rocket science and science and engineering practices. 

Almost 60 students from 13 area high schools attended the event.  Some of the highlights of the event included guided lab tours led by Dr. Thom Spence, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, and Dr. Rachel Rigsby, professor of chemistry, as well as a hands-on physics-engineering design challenge led by Belmont physics and chemistry faculty Drs. Krista McBride, Steve Robinson and Danielle Garrett. 

This event – serving to make the physical sciences relatable and accessible to high school students, exposing them to key equipment, materials and skills needed in science and math classrooms – was organized by the Department of Chemistry and Physics STEM Outreach Committee (Garrett, Rigsby and McBride). Garrett, who chairs this committee, was delighted by the positive feedback and continued success of this annual event.  

Panel discussion at Celebration of Women of Physical Science event at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, November 4, 2019.

During the afternoon, Rigsby also moderated a career panel where students had the opportunity to interact with professionals from the Middle Tennessee area who have pursued various careers in the physical sciences.  Panelists included Dr. Sharon Weiss (Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in Engineering/professor of Electrical Engineering, Physics, and Materials Science/director of the Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering), Dr. Hanna Terletska (assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Middle Tennessee State University), Dr. Tiffany Ellis Farmer (director of Learning & Outreach at the Adventure Science Center), Dr. Shelly Crescenzi (assistant professor in the Department of Radiology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center), and Belmont alumna Katie Decker (instructor of Upper School Chemistry and director of Design Lab at Christ Presbyterian Academy). 

The event ended with Dr. Janica Cheney’s keynote address “Rocket Science is Just Cool.” Cheney is the Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) Propulsion, Structures, Ordnance & Controls (PSOC) Director at Lockheed Martin Space. Prior to joining Lockheed Martin she worked at Orbital ATK, having served in numerous critical roles there, including support to FBM. She held key leadership positions at Orbital ATK, including most recently as senior director for test and research services and, prior to that, director for safety and mission assurance for defense and commercial systems. Prior to entering the defense industry, she was a National Academies Fellow at the Naval Research Laboratory, where she conducted research on semiconductor quantum dots to provide components for quantum computers. Cheney received her Doctor of Philosophy in Physics from the University of Utah. 

“We were privileged to have Dr. Cheney as our keynote speaker this year. Her talk was very well received and sparked a great interest in rocket science for both the visiting high school students and the Belmont undergraduates who attended her talk,” Garrett said. “It’s a joy to be part of developing and hosting an event that has such a positive impact on local students. Along with choosing different themes, each year we make modifications to the overall program – working to develop a rich and meaningful experience for the attendees. This year was the first year we incorporated a building challenge. Students worked in small teams to design and test rubber band-powered rovers – working to achieve a design that traveled the farthest along a straight line path.”

She continued, “It’s exciting to watch students work through the engineering design process, using both successes and failures to guide the re-design process. Learning and refining this type of critical and creative thinking is essential to strengthening both the depth and breadth of students’ scientific understanding. I’m also glad to see that this event is motivating Belmont undergraduate students to take a more active role in bringing science to the community. This year, roughly 20 Belmont undergraduate students both from the College of Sciences and Mathematics and from the Belmont undergraduate Women in Science (WIS) student organization were also on hand to help with this event. Without their help, we wouldn’t be able to make such a positive impact on our local schools year after year. Each year this event has been even better than the previous year, and we cannot wait to start exploring and developing new, exciting and engaging ideas for next year.”