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How a woman in science is using her background to inspire girls to get into STEM

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Despite the well-documented achievements of women scientists such as Sally Ride, Katherine Johnson and Grace Hopper, a huge gender gap remains in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM. For example, in the U.S., less than a fifth of engineers are women. Emily Calandrelli is one of them. She's an MIT-educated mechanical and aerospace engineer. And as NPR's Adam Bearne reports, she's using that stellar background to inspire girls to get into STEM.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EMILY'S WONDER LAB")

PARRY GRIPP: (Singing) Emily's Wonder Lab. Stay curious and keep exploring.

ADAM BEARNE, BYLINE: If you were parenting during the pandemic, there's a good chance that this theme song would replay in your head, I don't know, several hundred times a day. "Emily's Wonder Lab" is the Netflix show that sees host Emily Calandrelli teaching kids about the wonder of science through fun experiments.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EMILY'S WONDER LAB")

EMILY CALANDRELLI: Today, we are learning about slime.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN CHEERING)

BEARNE: The program gave many families a science fix when schools were closed, so when Netflix decided not to renew it after a single season in 2020...

CALANDRELLI: I cannot explain how disappointed I was that it didn't get picked up.

BEARNE: I'm talking to Calandrelli in a Washington, D.C., hotel. She tells me "Emily's Wonder Lab" and appearances on another kid's show only came after years of rejection. Calandrelli had started by pitching science shows for adults.

CALANDRELLI: The feedback that I got consistently was that the vast majority of our audience is male, so they just don't think they will relate well to a solo female host. And to me, it feels like no coincidence that in this world of science television, the only spot where they felt comfortable with me hosting a show was with children's programming.

BEARNE: And that echoes her experience in the STEM world.

CALANDRELLI: I very much feel like I've moved from one male-dominated field to another. I was one of two girls in maybe a 50-person class, and now, when I became the host of my very first TV show, "Xploration Outer Space," I became the first woman in the United States with their own nationwide science show. That was a decade ago, and the field has not really changed since.

BEARNE: It all adds to Calandrelli's disappointment about losing the Netflix series.

CALANDRELLI: Parents weren't just like, oh, we love your show, it was like, thank you so much for your show. My daughter now says that she wants to be a scientist when she grows up.

BEARNE: That's very much on display later in the day at Politics and Prose, a D.C. bookstore. Calandrelli is here to meet fans who've bought her new book of family friendly experiments called "Stay Curious And Keep Exploring: Next Level."

CALANDRELLI: What do you want to be when you grow up?

LYANA MEJIA: I want to be a scientist.

CALANDRELLI: You want to be a scientist? You look like a scientist.

BEARNE: That's her talking to Lyana Mejia and her mom, Ivory Mejia, who've come all the way from Georgia just for this moment.

LYANA: It was so cool. I liked that I actually got to take a picture with her.

IVORY MEJIA: The first time she saw "Emily's Wonder Lab," she got so excited. She started asking us to do different science experiments, and it was just really important to me that she get the opportunity to see her hero in person so that she could see just what she can accomplish.

BEARNE: You seem like you're getting kind of emotional thinking about it.

MEJIA: Yeah. I didn't have this growing up. I'm so amazed that we have women like Emily.

BEARNE: Kathleen Kostandin brought her 6-year-old daughter Juliet from Richmond, Va.

JULIET: I want to be like Emily and do special science experiments.

KATHLEEN KOSTANDIN: It is incredibly important to watch Emily be a woman in science. You know, she's pregnant on some of her episodes, and watching her balance motherhood and a career and show girls, especially, that they can achieve a multitude of different dreams is truly inspiring.

BEARNE: Which is probably why almost 100,000 people have signed an online petition to ask Netflix to bring back the show so that their girls can stay curious and keep exploring.

Adam Bearne, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adam Bearne
Adam Bearne is an editor for Morning Edition who joined the team in August 2022.