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Auburn Senior Builds Confidence to Lead at STEM Leadership Academy

Tianna Vong at Exelon Foundation STEM Leadership Academy

I grew up spending most of my time as a recluse, taking apart my gaming consoles and putting them back together. From that experience, I was pushed into a world that I was determined to break into as a young woman of color. Since then, I have done everything I can to shine in my area of interest as well as inspire other young women to pursue their interests no matter what.

My experience in my AP Physics class with Mrs. Ruggerio pushed me to apply for the Exelon Foundation STEM Leadership Academy program. Mrs. Ruggerio has inspired me as a woman who is interested in working with the sciences, and she is an amazing role model for young women. Her class has pushed me as a student and was what helped me really realize that I would prefer working in the scientific area rather than art.

Working as a Team at the STEM Leadership Academy

I was blessed with being accepted into the Exelon Foundation STEM Leadership Academy. The Academy was created to lift up young women interested in pursuing a career in the STEM field. I spent July 31 - August 5 in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) with 59 other young women who were accepted. We spent our first day getting to know one another as well as meeting our teams for our challenge. The challenge itself was to create a business and product to improve IIT's relationship with the ever-growing issue of climate change. We were challenged with figuring out how much carbon is being output and how to reduce it, as well as business/product value, marketing campaigns, product concepts, job listings, pilot projects, visuals, and eventually how we plan to present at our product at our job fair to actual executives.

My team was made up of wonderful young women: Leyna, an aspiring computer scientist like myself who also has goals of advocating for the less privileged; Arva, who plans to get a degree in aerospace engineering; and Emma, who plans on going into engineering as well! After each idea pitch, and after some team-building exercises, our team voted me as team lead with my idea. That idea was to replace RFID chips, commonly used to scan into buildings with a PVC plastic ID, and to replace them with NFC tech, the same technology used for software Apple Pay. By using NFC technology, my team realized that we could get rid of 58,000 kilograms of PVC cards a year, which is equivalent to around five whale sharks. On top of that, it would get rid of 262.334 kilograms of CO2-eq (carbon dioxide) from our atmosphere. During our research, we also found that there was a huge environmental injustice happening with the production of these PVC cards.

I would like to introduce the case of Reveilletown, Louisiana. This town became so polluted by the fumes given off by the factory in town that all residents had to relocate, and all buildings had to be torn down. The factory then bought the land and resides there today. The most haunting thing about this is that the graves of residents can still be seen next to the factory. This case moved my team so much that we were determined to find a way to fix such injustices. In the end, my team and I came up with SwipeBy, an application that uses NFC technology to cut down the use of PVC plastic. We also came up with a pilot program for our app. This pilot included the idea of surveying all IIT's students, working with on-campus organizations, testing the technology on one floor for free for three weeks, and then eventually propose the technology to be integrated to all of IIT, and offer trials for other universities.

For one week, we worked on our plan and made mockups. In the end, we put in our all and placed first. I will never forget the excitement on my team’s faces and cheers that were let out the second our company's name was called. It's truly a core memory for me now, and I think it is for the other girls involved.

Helping Women Shine in STEM

The Exelon STEM Academy for young women is an experience that can truly give the push that some women need to influence them that they are just as good as their male counterparts. It is something we were reminded of the entire time at the camp, especially during our dinner with the executives and CEO of ComEd. The chances to network and pitch our ideas to amazing role models is truly an experience that many teens do not get, and I strongly believe it helped some of our more introverted girls shine. Overall, I would recommend applying to this opportunity for any young women interested in working in the STEM career pathway, and I wish the best of luck to them as well.

Building Confidence to Lead

During the STEM Leadership Academy, I was pushed outside of my comfort level. While I typically work in a leader role, I never have worked as a leader of a group for an entire week. It was fun, and I now have more confidence in my work and my ability to lead. The multitude of AP classes I took at Auburn – such as AP World History, AP Language, and AP 2-D Design – have also had a large effect on my confidence as a student and have pushed me to always want to learn further.

Thank You Teachers & Role Models!

My AP Art teacher, Mrs. Wood, has also been a large factor in my confidence as not only a student, but as my own person. She encourages her students to fight for what they believe is right, and never condense themselves for another's sake. She believes in talking about the good and bad because it helps you grow. Having her as a teacher for the last four years has been amazing, and every day she reminds me that I deserve where I am. Life has multiple pathways, so I should not feel shame in my personal path. Mrs. Wood and Mrs. Ruggerio have been amazing role models and are the first people I go to when I am looking for advice. 


Tianna Vong

Tianna Vong

Tianna Vong is a senior at Auburn High School. She is a lover of all things tech, art, classic literature and music. Tianna plans to either double major in computer science and biomedical engineering or major in computer science and minor in science illustration. She hopes that with her decision to go into these fields she can inspire others to follow their dreams, as the field is not known for having women of color. Tianna hopes to go to the University of Chicago or other participants of the QuestBridge program, if accepted.

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