Program offers students a look at various scientific fields

School Superintendent Antoinette Rath (left) and Harrington Middle School principal Kathleen Haines congratulate students Madeleine Berks and Marisa Caccese (right) for progress on their team's robot.
School Superintendent Antoinette Rath (left) and Harrington Middle School principal Kathleen Haines congratulate students Madeleine Berks and Marisa Caccese (right) for progress on their team's robot. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 25, 2014

A few years ago, Mount Laurel School Superintendent Antoinette Rath heard a statistic quoted during a conference that pretty much blew her away: In the United States, there are more female truck drivers than female scientists.

"I thought, 'Wow,' " Rath recalled. "It hit me between the eyes."

Back in her district, she checked on her own students. It seemed that as the girls went up in the years, their enthusiasm for science slacked off. In class, they participated less.

So Rath, who will be honored for her achievements this week, started talking with her staff about how to make science more hands-on, more relevant, more - her word - "alive" for girls as well as boys.

Flash to the present: Mount Laurel's middle schoolers have a whole Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) program on offer. In grades five through eight, students are building robots, making environmental videos, doing digital research, making forensic discoveries, and more.

"It was that quote that helped me champion a course for girls to go into science fields," Rath said. And not just girls. "It was about youth empowerment."

On Thursday, Rath and six others will be feted at an awards banquet as 2014's Outstanding Women of Burlington County by the county Advisory Council on Women.

The other honorees include Judith Glick Buckman, a founding member of the Alice Paul Institute, named for the New Jersey suffragist and women's rights activist; Karen Harkaway, dermatology chief at Lourdes Medical Center of Burlington County, who removes breast cancer patients' radiation tattoos free, helped with Hurricane Sandy cleanup, and does other philanthropy; Kristen E. Polovoy, a lawyer with multiple sclerosis who serves as an advocate for others with the disease.

Monica Steele-Taylor, another honoree, is a wife, mother, grandmother, career woman, and abuse survivor dedicated to raising awareness of domestic abuse and promoting healthy relationships. She hosts workshops for teens and single parents and participates in charitable efforts.

Two teenagers - Devon Hartsough, a senior at Lenape High School in Medford; and Rachel Patterson, a senior at Northern Burlington Regional High School in Mansfield - also will be honored.

Rath's contributions are in education and service to youth. But it was a career that found her, not the other way around.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Norristown, she always loved school, especially math. When she graduated from West Chester University, her master's degree was in speech pathology. She figured she would work in hospital settings. Before that, she considered practicing law.

But life takes many turns. Engaged, Rath - nee Petrillo - and her husband-to-be decided to move to New Jersey, so she took a speech pathologist post in a public school in West Deptford.

"What I didn't realize was how cool this was. I discovered a niche," Rath said. "How cool it was working with little ones."

Before long, her principal started to encourage her to think about going into administration.

Her first post was with the Clayton School District as director of special education. From there, she went to Paulsboro and Cherry Hill, also as special-education director. In Cherry Hill, she went on to become a deputy superintendent. In 2002, she went to Mount Laurel as superintendent.

Along the way, she earned a doctorate in education administration from Widener University and did postdoctoral studies at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania. She served as chair of the U.S. Department of Education Regional Advisory Board and as president of the Burlington County chapter of the American Association of School Administrators. She mentors future teachers for Penn's graduate school of education.

She also raised two children. Her daughter, a teacher, is working on her master's in special education. Her son is a nuclear physicist/astrophysicist.

Pretty impressive for someone who didn't intend to go into education.

"By nature, I'm a very driven person. I'm goal-oriented," said Rath, Philly still present in her speech. "It's difficult for me to balance. I put myself 100 percent in whatever I do."

But she is quick to add she has had plenty of help.

Lockheed Martin and the Sally Mae Fund provided the money to create and continue the STEM program. Lockheed also has shared its scientists as mentors.

And, Rath said, the program couldn't have happened without her staff - administrators as well as instructors like Maureen Barrett, who teaches the seventh-grade robotics class at Harrington Middle School.

Barrett, whose students are building underwater robots, said her female pupils were just as into their creations as the boys were.

"It's beautiful," said Barrett, who had to teach herself how to make robots when she was tapped for the class. "These girls are awesome."

Quite a few of them started out with misgivings.

"I wouldn't have thought of doing this until I got the chance to do it. Now I really like it," said Gemma Ruggiano, whose Just Keep Swimming team was building a robot called Robie.

"I didn't really think I would be able to build a robot," said Kavita Shah of the Swagalicious Sea Cucumbers. "I thought it would be too complicated for me, I wouldn't be able to attach the wires."

But last week, their Oswald Octonaut 2.0 was just about ready for a test swim. Kavita said she had wanted to be an artist, "but now I think I might become an engineer."

That she and girls like her feel they have a choice is perhaps Rath's greatest reward of all.


rgiordano@phillynews.com

856-779-3893

@ritagiordano

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