Empowering and Challenging Young Women in STEM Careers

Photo provided by Mount Notre Dame


Ten years ago, people weren’t talking much about the need for engineering courses at the high school level, especially at an all-girls’ school.

But they were at Mount Notre Dame (MND).

The 158-year-old college prep high school in Reading, which prides itself on a commitment to the education of the whole person rooted in Catholic values, has been busy looking to the future, especially when it comes to its science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum.

“We have been on the leading edge of the STEM movement,” says Michelle Shafer, the school’s science chairperson and STEM coordinator. “We’ve had an engineering program in conjunction with the University of Cincinnati (UC) for 10 years now. We saw a need to bring affordable and adaptable engineering classes to the high school level.”

Working with UC to offer College Credit Plus courses, the Mt. Notre Dame engineering electives focus on design, problem solving and critical thinking, Shafer says. Courses also integrate field trips, such as to the Food and Drug Administration lab, and guest speakers.

Another engaging engineering challenge for students involves partnering with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in their 12-year-old project to bring solar power systems to villages in Nigeria and the Congo, mainly to power water purification and internet access. A model of the system used in Africa is installed at a photovoltaic lab at the convent next to the high school. It enables the students to help troubleshoot issues in the system.

“The students spend time testing the filters they are using in Africa to determine how much bacteria and pathogens we are really killing,” says Shafer. “Also, there is the issue of batteries – how to make them last as long as possible and how to dispose of them since they are so toxic.”

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in STEM careers and higher education engineering programs. As these institutions struggle with finding solutions to issues of sex discrimination, Shafer feels Mount Notre Dame can do its part to break down perceptions and empower young women to consider STEM careers.

“The perception has been that STEM careers aren’t nurturing fields, which is what women have made their mark in, like teachers, doctors or nurses. It was thought that staring at a computer, or designing a bridge, wasn’t very nurturing. But with things like the photovoltaic project, they can see how they are changing lives. We’ve tried to point out that a STEM career can really help society.”

MND already has a rich tradition of outstanding performance in various STEM competitions. Three years ago, MND students placed first in Ohio Math League Tests of Engineering Aptitude, Mathematics and Science; submitted a first-place proposal, “Color Me a Rain Barrel,” in UC’s Caring for our Watershed competition and won Best in State for the Verizon App Challenge.

“I receive so many compliments after those competitions, but it’s not me,” says Shafer. “It’s our students and the program we have developed at Mount Notre Dame. They know how to write. They know how to speak. They know how to problem solve. Over four years we really develop the skills that are necessary for them to succeed in the real world.” 


Quick Facts about Mount Notre Dame

  • Mission: Guided by the Catholic faith and Saint Julie Billiart’s belief in the “goodness of God,” MND educates and empowers young women to recognize and develop their unique capabilities to learn, live, lead and serve.
  • Enrollment of over 700 women in a college preparatory curriculum offering 25 Honors Courses and 20 AP Courses
  • The Class of ’18 received $21 million in college scholarships
  • MND offers 60 clubs & activities and has earned 23 Division 1 State Championships


Mount Notre Dame High School is located at 711 East Columbia Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45215. For more information, call 513.821.3044 or visit www.mndhs.org.