Miss Vermont’s Crowning Achievement: Promoting STEM Learning

Alayna Westcom was the first Miss America contestant to conduct a science experiment during the talent portion of the competition

Alayna Westcom, the current Miss Vermont, is touring schools across the state, encouraging kids to pursue education in science, technology, engineering, and math.

"Science education is so important," she said. "We use science, technology, engineering, and math--in some way--pretty much every moment of the day."

Westcom, 24, made headlines in September, becoming the first-ever Miss America contestant to conduct a science experiment for the talent portion of the competition.

"I was the first, but it doesn't mean I have to be the last," Westcom said, noting she previously tried singing and dancing in pageant competitions, but never felt comfortable performing until she embraced the idea of doing a science experiment as her talent. "It wasn't until I decided to do something I loved to do that I finally became the Miss Vermont I wanted to be."

Westcom ended up falling short of winning the 2016 Miss America crown; that went to ‎Betty Cantrell of Georgia.

The Bakersfield native, who graduated from Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans and then studied forensic science at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, continued her education in medical laboratory science at the University of Vermont.

When not working in a Northwestern Medical Center lab running tests on samples, or as an autopsy technician in the office of Vermont's chief medical examiner, Westcom regularly visits schools, including a recent stop to the St. Albans Town Educational Center.

In the visits, Westcom wears her Miss Vermont sash and crown, and mixes dish soap, hydrogen peroxide, and potassium iodide, repeating the experiment she performed for the Miss America judges. The result is a reaction that leaves Westcom's skin tinged yellow, and sends sudsy pillars shooting from large beakers toward the ceiling before falling onto a soapy pile on the floor and tabletop.

"I thought it was really cool," said Lily Yandow, a St. Albans sixth grader.

The messy experiments create opportunities for Westcom to pitch the STEM fields, explaining to students how their studies in those areas can be applied to many different career paths for the future. Westcom calls it vital that communities nurture young people's interest in STEM, not just to fill the nation's job needs, but, she said, to tackle big problems like diseases or dirty drinking water.

"I grew up being told, 'You don't look like a scientist' or 'Are you sure that's what you want to do? That's not really a career for a young woman,'" Westcom recalled. "And I don't want any young women to be pushed into a different direction because somebody told them it's not for them. If we want to do it, we can do it."

"She's such a role model to girls," observed St. Albans sixth grader Ayanna Raymond.

"I think she inspired me a lot," added Rachel Needleman, another sixth grader, who said Westcom's presentation piqued her interest in chemistry.

Westcom said she hopes to take the MCAT exam next year and head to medical school. She said her goal is to attend the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

Westcom told necn she is interested in pursuing a career as a medical examiner, conducting death investigations. She said working as an autopsy technician has left her convinced that the field is for her, because of how it provides helpful answers to families about the loss of a loved one, and critical information to law enforcement to help them make arrests in the case of a homicide.

Before taking the MCAT, Westcom said she aims to reach 10,000 or more young Vermonters through school visits during what she called a "year of service" in communities across her home state. She said she is already nearing halfway to that goal.

"Science education, STEM education, anything they want to do is in their reach as long as they want to work for it," Westom told necn, summarizing her message to students.

So watch out ceilings and floors everywhere, Alayna Westcom plans to continue her messy demonstrations, hoping to make science education advocacy her crowning achievement.

Through participation in Miss Vermont and Miss America competitions, Westcom said she has received more than $23,000 in scholarships which helped her pay down student loans, as she starts studying for the MCAT.

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