As Hannah Fernandes ’17 searched for a Senior Capstone topic during the fall of her senior year, her mother asked a simple but unexpected question: How did Hannah feel about being one of the only girls in her STEM classes?
“Frankly it was something older women had to point out to me in high school,” says Hannah, who excelled in the school’s upper-level math, science, and computer science courses.
“It wasn’t something that was consciously on my mind as a high school student until I took a step back and I was like: they are right. I am - if not the only - one of the few women in these classes.”
From that single question, Hannah had found her Senior Capstone topic. She would spend the rest of her senior year studying women in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics], and how a systemic gender gap in STEM fields impacts girls’ educations and their engagement in STEM courses.
As part of her research, Hannah reached out to all the Holderness women she knew who were interested in STEM, and invited them to an informal group discussion one night after sit-down dinner. The 30 students and teachers who showed up talked for hours, finding an intense camaraderie in their shared experiences as women in STEM. “The amount of empowerment I felt from knowing that it wasn’t just me, knowing there were things we could do to improve Holderness as a school, as an education system, as a larger world, as people who would leave Holderness, it was frankly incredible,” Hannah says. “And I had people emailing me right afterwards saying ‘When are we meeting again?’”
With that, the STEMinists club was born.
Today, Hannah works as a software engineer at Apple’s headquarters in Silicon Valley – an incredible success story for anyone with a passion for STEM. But Hannah’s story is truly exceptional considering the continued gender gap in STEM fields. According to 2019 data from the United States Census Bureau, women comprise just 27 percent of STEM workers, despite making up 48 percent of all workers nationwide. The numbers are even more lopsided for workers in Hannah’s field: women make up a quarter of computer workers, and just 15 percent of engineers.
But there is reason for hope. Nationally, the percentage of women in STEM fields overall has more than tripled since 1970. And today, at Holderness, the club that Hannah inadvertently founded – the STEMinists - is still going strong.
With more than 20 members, the STEMinists, which is open to nonbinary and transgender students, is one of the most active clubs on campus. And they’ve been especially busy during the 2022-23 school year: during the fall semester alone, they attended a Girls in STEAM Leadership Summit at Cushing Academy; led STEM labs for middle school girls; and built a robotic hand. They also held a Zoom call with Holderness alums who have gone on to pursue thriving STEM careers. During that call, students had a chance to talk not only with Hannah, but Paige Pfenninger ’15, an MIT grad student conducting research on the movement of underwater animal populations, and Julia Thulander ’16, a graduate student researching aquatic animals at Tennessee Technological University.
For students like Caroline Simmonds ’23, the STEMinists club has been a welcome respite from a culture where women in STEM are often undervalued. Caroline recalls taking an online STEM course where she felt ignored and dismissed, simply because of her gender. “There would be guys that would sort of dismiss my ideas as soon as I started talking to them, and that was hard,” says Caroline, who plans to major in Math and Theater at Bowdoin College this fall. “I definitely appreciate a group that’s just for girls and focuses on building girls up.”
Building girls up is exactly what STEMinists is doing, says Math Department Chair Elizabeth Wolf, the club’s advisor. “I want them to understand that they have a place in this world, whatever they want to do,” Elizabeth says. “I want them to leave here and leave knowing that if they’re the only girl in a room, great. Do it – be that girl in the room. Don’t shy away from that. There’s nothing that they can’t do.”
Setting their sights high is an ethos the STEMinists are already passing on to the next generation of students. This year, the STEMinists ran a lab with middle school-aged girls in the Circle Program, a Plymouth-based nonprofit that supports New Hampshire girls who lack the opportunities and resources to develop their full potential. During the engineering-focused lab, the STEMinists worked with the younger girls to build weight-bearing towers out of everyday objects like dried pasta, paper, and tape. “The kids didn’t know what to do at first but we talked it out and throughout their time here they broke out of their shell and got more confident in what they were doing,” says Stella Regan ’26. “By the second experiment they were participating a lot more and it was really powerful. It was invigorating – it just felt good to work with them.”
By helping to introduce young girls to STEM - and supporting their own classmates - the STEMinists are engineering a world in which girls and women are just as well represented in STEM as their male counterparts. “I hope that they feel encouraged and supported and just their interest continues to grow and they feel validated being surrounded by people with similar interests,” says Caroline, the Bowdoin-bound senior. “I know I felt like I sometimes was the only girl in the classroom who was interested in that and that was a little hard. I just hope that it encourages them to go further in their STEM careers.”
If the STEMinists follow in the footsteps of the club’s founder, Hannah Fernandes, that new world will arise sooner than many think. At Apple, Hannah joined an employee club where she helped start the company’s Silicon Valley-area partnership with the organization Girls Who Code. The group also partners with College Track and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Silicon Valley, where Apple employees volunteer to teach coding classes. By giving back to young people in STEM, Hannah has brought her Senior Capstone project full circle.
“It’s awesome to now be in the real world and feel like I’m having an even larger impact – and I thank Holderness a lot for laying the groundwork for stuff like that,” Hannah says, recalling that pivotal first meeting of women in STEM at Holderness.
“I just walked away feeling a sense of empowerment and belonging that I had never felt before, and I’ve kind of been chasing that feeling, cultivating spaces where others can feel that same feeling.”