A half-thousand people, most of them tittering young Girl Scouts, watched a speck drop from an airplane high above the tarmac of Lynchburg Regional Airport on Saturday morning.

The girls and their family were there for SOAR! Aviation Day—held by the Virginia Skyline Girls Scouts—that focused on aviation as part of a national Girl Scout effort to boost interest in science, technology, engineering and math—or STEM—education. More women held a doctorate in every STEM field in 2010 than 1991, according to National Science Foundation data. In all STEM jobs, however, the only professions without a gender gap are biological and medical scientists.

“Girl scouting is all about leadership. People used to think it’s all about cookies and crafts… But it’s really all about courage, confidence and character,” said Jean Ann Hughes, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Virginia Skyline Council.

The speck came closer into view, expanded his parachute and circled the tarmac before bolting to the ground and pulling up at the last second for a gliding landing on the tarmac. He came to the barricade to high-five the scouts, repeatedly answering questions like, “Were you scared?” to which he responded: “Yes.”

Valissa Deurk was wearing her fully-decorated sash with patches and badges over her United Airlines pilot uniform. The lifelong Girl Scout did her first solo flight when she was 15, before most people can drive, and said she’s not nervous flying commercial planes to Europe, or to anywhere.

About 10 percent of all commercial pilots are female, she said.

“I think [Aviation Day] is an excellent opportunity and I think it’s very important,” she said. “Women are very creative and add a full spectrum of ideas.”

STEM is one of the major items of promotion for the Girl Scouts this year, along with healthy living and the outdoors. There are a total of 35 STEM-related badges, which have a national standard of set requirements, said Sierra Brown, program manager for Girl Scouts Virginia Skyline.

Girl Scouts helped her get into her chosen educational background, she said, which is environmental science.

Brown was teaching Girl Scouts about air-fuel engines for Aviation Day. “Strap on your fuselage,” she said, which was a straw taped to a balloon. A string was run through the straw and the balloon was let go, propelling it in a straight line.

When asked what made her go into a STEM field, she said, “I’m tough, so I wanted to show people that I could do things that were hard.”

Indeed, explaining how the air-fueled engine worked, she said: “The force on the inside is greater than the outside.”

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