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STEM: It’s all in a day’s work

Jessica Ovca had read the reports saying women are underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math [STEM] workforce.

There’s no shortage of debate about why. But some observers believe not enough girls are being encouraged to pursue those subjects in their early school years or, subsequently, choose related careers.

Others maintain that even if women don’t opt for STEM careers, having a good grasp of the subject matter is important to every citizen’s decision-making in today’s increasingly high-tech world.

Ovca claims no expertise on the subject but she did conclude that she could do something to make a difference. She wondered, “Why not show young girls how and why STEM-related knowledge plays a major role in her own profession, admittedly the type of work in which men still dominate?”

Ovca’s recommendation was to hold a STEM-related event for middle school girls to explain how STEM subjects are vital to her work as a member of the Ballwin Police Department. The response of her boss, Ballwin Police Chief Kevin Scott, was twofold, basically: “Go for it. What do you need from me to make it happen?”

Ballwin Police Det. Jessica Ovca explains how a shoe imprint was gathered at a crime scene.

Ovca knew she wanted to enlist the help of two other uniformed women officers, Krystal Rock and Tabitha Peebles. Both women were more than willing to assist their colleague. Ovca’s 14 years in police work and her assignment as a detective on the Ballwin force have given her the unofficial position of mentor for the two younger women. Rock is into her second year with the department while Peebles joined last summer.

“Having the chance to make an impression on young girls and emphasizing that they can do whatever they want to do in life” is how Rock explained her willingness to take on the task.

Peebles observed that “serving as a role model for girls is a big assignment,” but one she wanted to do.

Also on hand to assist and observe as part of her current internship with the department was Rachel Kim, a student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Dina Abbacchi, a veteran on the Ballwin emergency communications desk.

Speaking from experience

Any doubts about whether the STEM event was an idea that would fly with middle school girls were quickly quashed. Within hours of its posting on the department’s social media, the two-hour session had more registrants than expected. Sign-ups had to be closed, but the cut-off came with a pledge that more sessions will be held in the future.

Ovca’s decision to enter the law enforcement field was due to an experience not unlike the STEM event she advocated. Between her junior and senior years at Truman State University, she had an internship with a police department.

“Police work was much more than I had imagined,” Ovca said.

After completing her college degree in justice systems, she joined the Chesterfield Police Department. When she married a fellow Chesterfield officer in 2007, Jeff Ovca, she necessitated a move, due to nepotism rules. That’s when she began her career with the Ballwin department.

While a student at Maryville University, Rock had considered joining the Armed Forces and going into military police work after completing her education. But she, too, she had an internship that proved life-inspiring. Hers was with the Ballwin Police Department, which she decided to join following graduation.

Peebles’ goal was to work where she would have an impact on the community and “police work just seemed to fit,” she said.

At the STEM event, both Rock and Peebles wore their uniforms and had with them their regular tools of the trade, including handcuffs, a taser, a semi-automatic pistol and bullet-proof vest. As a detective, Ovca was dressed in street clothes.

Many of the participants wanted to find out how it felt to be handcuffed and Officer Krystal Rock obliged.

Learning hands-on

A person wouldn’t need to be a scientist, technology expert, engineer or mathematician to be a police officer but the presentation and demonstrations by the three women left no doubt that having a good grasp of STEM disciplines is important in today’s law enforcement world.

The lidar, originally an acronym for “light detection and ranging” but now an accepted word, is the high-tech replacement for yesterday’s radar speed limit enforcement equipment. Understanding how the hand-held device works calls for familiarity with lasers and mathematics.

Ovca explained the electrical and physiological aspects of the taser, designed to temporarily incapacitate a person rather than using the potentially deadly force of a firearm. After making sure everyone was behind her, Rock fired the taser at a board-mounted human silhouette.

Use of an alternate light source device for illuminating materials not easily spotted in regular lighting situations also was explained as one of the tools in crime scene work.

Officer Tabitha Peebles instructs on the swirling, light touch used for applying fingerprint powder to a surface.

Collection of fingerprints from a variety of surfaces was demonstrated before the 26 participants donned latex gloves to try their hands at the skill. After the hands-on practice, several of the attendees became illustrations of how easily the fine, black powder used for finding prints on the white tabletop could wind up on faces, necks or arms.

Participants also learned about DNA evidence and some of the ways it can be gathered for analysis; how and why gunshot residue is collected; and the technique used for lifting a boot, shoe or tire print at a crime scene. In addition, Ovca told how a crowbar or other device used for a break-in can be identified by capturing the distinctive markings the tool leaves behind.

After police dispatcher Abbacchi told about the department’s communications center, which receives 911 emergency calls and dispatches officers for both Ballwin and Manchester, the group visited the operation. A brief stop at the lock-up where those arrested can be held for a short period was on the agenda as well.

Attending the event because his daughter was one of the participants, Scott sat quietly in the back of the room during most of the two-hour session. Clearly comfortable with being on the sidelines while the three women conducted the event, he participated only to drive the car used for demonstrating the lidar’s operation.

Moving the participants outdoors, Rock and Peebles described the technology that surrounds them in their patrol cars, focusing on the computer and communications gear that can send and retrieve information rapidly. The cargo area of two departmental SUVs used both for patrol duties and as crime scene vehicles is filled with equipment important for finding evidence

Both Ovca and Scott told West Newsmagazine that the STEM event was the first of what is expected to be an ongoing series that will be expanded to include sessions for boys as well as girls and for high school as well as middle school students.

Although many, but not all, of the first event’s participants came from Rockwood’s Selvidge Middle, Parkway School officials also have indicated their interest in having that district’s students involved.

Ballwin Police Officer Tabitha Peebles shows a group of STEM event participants how the department’s lidar speed measuring device operates.

Emma Naes, an eighth-grader at Selvidge, said she enjoyed the session, identifying the lidar and taser demonstrations as especially interesting.

Autumn Brinkley, a home-schooled sixth-grade student from House Springs, said she found the event interesting and has thought about working in law enforcement.

Selvidge eighth-grader Jennifer Liu said she too has an interest in law enforcement and was impressed by the responsibilities police officers have. Noting she was particularly interested in the communications capabilities available to officers, she added with a smile, “And the cupcakes [available as a break-time snack] were delicious, too.”

Participants in the Ballwin Police Department’s first-ever STEM in Police Work event


Officer Krystal Rock, in background facing camera, showed a group of STEM event participants the Ballwin Police Department’s lock-up where persons arrested can be held for short periods.


One of the more popular devices was the miniature video camera that can look around corners or under closed doors for potential dangers.


Dusting for fingerprints

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