Sparking a Love of STEM

By Office of Communication and Community Relations
Senior Spotlight
August 13, 2018


Leela Ayyar’s excitement about science, technology, engineering, and math is contagious, just as it is with her literary alter ego, Elara. One day, Leela hopes to get her pilot’s license and pursue her dream of becoming an astronaut.

Animated gif of Elara the Stem Girl Book


It can be tough to be an aspiring engineer in a predominantly masculine field of study, but her passion has always pushed her forward. Along the way, Leela noticed that other girls didn't feel the same way. Even her own sister Meera was becoming discouraged. Meera would come home from school and tell Leela stories about the boys in her class. Meera told her she would often hear that boys are better in science and math. She said boys in her class would accuse her of cheating if she got a better score on a test. So when it came time for Leela to choose her Capstone Project at Oakton High School, it didn’t take her long to figure out what she wanted to do.


In Fairfax County Public Schools, many students participate in Capstone Projects, a form of problem-based or project-based learning. Students are able to demonstrate their knowledge about a subject in a way that takes them beyond a test score. For students at Oakton, the Capstone Project begins in the 11th grade with a question. The question is driven by an issue or subject that a student is passionate about. Students research the history, scopes, and evidence. The final product is a research paper that students present to an authentic audience.

In 12th grade, students go into the community to volunteer and try to impact or make a change based on their research.

Pull Quote and Photograph of Leela Ayyar: "I went as far back as the 1800’s, where women were not getting credit for a Nobel Price, even though they did the majority of the work." Leela Ayyar, Oakton High School



Leela’s Capstone focused on the gender gap of women in STEM. During her research, she identified four issues that inhibit young girls from pursuing STEM studies.

Graphic image of one female student in a class of males

Being the Minority

Nobody wants to be the only girl in an after-school activity.

Graphic showing fear of failure (parachute not working)

Fear of Failure

Being scared of not doing well.

Graphic image of not being able to answer correctly in math

Math Anxiety

Nobody wants to answer in class, don’t want to be wrong.

Graphic image showing a magnifying glass


Societal pressures to fit a mold or model.

Women in STEM Jobs, 24% Women, 76% Men
Source: 2015, Data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of the Chief Economist


After completing her capstone project, Leela decided that creating a young girl as a role model for STEM success would help to spread her message. That's how Elara, STEM Girl came to life. Leela created a Kickstarter page and raised more than $4,500 to help finance illustrations and publishing. It took her two months to write Elara’s first adventure and several months of editing, illustrations and production. The book was released on July 2, 2018.

During the story, Elara encounters all four of the challenges that Leela identified in her capstone project and finds that she can be successful in STEM. 

I used to think I wasn't good at math, so I never answered any questions in class. But then my Dad told me that no one is born good at math. It just takes practice.

Illustration of girl with a robot

At first, I felt uncomfortable since I'm the only girl in the club, but that all went away when I started designing my robot. Building something and watching it work is the best feeling!

Inspiring Future STEM Girls

Leela's work as an author isn't the only way that she's encouraged young girls to find their STEM passion. Leela has spent countless hours volunteering with afterschool science programs, including KAST (Kids Are Scientists, Too) and her own Oakton Astronomy club to speak to young girls and show them fun and interesting ways to apply STEM to real life.

Elara (and Leela) has her own webpage where you can learn about her efforts to encourage girls to get interested in STEM!