By John R. Anderson
Every contestant in the Miss Vermont Pageant has a platform, and not the kind you stand upon. For Miss Vermont 2015, Alayna Westcom, the platform was “Success through STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” After winning her title last April, Miss Westcom went on to the Miss America Pageant where she was the first contestant ever to do a science experiment as her talent presentation.
Back at home in the Green Mountain State, Westcom had a full year of public appearances, but in addition to the Apple Blossom Festival and the Vermont Maple Weekend, she has made the time to speak to over 10,000 students about the value of STEM education.
A self-described science nerd, Westcom knew she wanted to be a scientist in the sixth grade after being inspired by several teachers. She graduated from Bay Path College with a degree in forensic science and has done post-baccalaureate work at the University of Vermont.
Currently, she works a 40-hour week in a medical laboratory at Northwestern Medical Center, and she works another 8 hours as an autopsy technician in the State Medical Examiner’s office. Her responsibilities as Miss Vermont add an additional 35-40 hours per week to her busy schedule.
At Auburn Middle School last Thursday, Miss Vermont did three grade-specific presentations about how STEM is used in our daily lives. She was articulate and responsive to the varied questions and comments from the students. This was a well-executed presentation that concluded with a fun science experiment called Elephant’s Toothpaste.
In lab vessels, Miss Westcom poured together hydrogen peroxide and Dawn dish soap. Then she added a small amount of potassium iodide which served as a catalyst for an exothermic chemical reaction. The oxygen released from the hydrogen peroxide picked up the soap bubbles and created a forceful expulsion of foam. The slide show illustrates this well. Plastic and a tarp protected the gymnasium floor.
After the three presentations concluded, Miss Westcom met with a handful of young women who have displayed an interest in STEM careers. Meeting in the classroom the STEM teacher Christine Robbins, they got a chance to ask more detailed questions.
When asked about challenges facing women in the STEM fields, Miss Westcom responded, “The biggest challenge is believing in yourself.” There is no doubt that these AMS students will be believing a bit more after this meeting.
As for Miss Westcom’s future, she plans to attend the University of Lowell in the fall for a one-year pre-med program before taking the entrance exams. She wants to become a medical doctor and then a pathologist. Her ultimate goal is to become the medical eaminer for the State of Vermont.
Her ability to teach and inspire students was very obvious on Thursday, but Miss Westcom summarized her long-term goals nicely, “As a teacher, I would educate children. As a pathologist, I will be able to educate families.”