In high school, Lauren Murphy’s role models encouraged her to pursue a career in science. Today, the UCF Civil Engineering major inspires and mentors girls to follow in her footsteps.

Using beads, sequins and sparkly things girls like, Murphy demonstrates principles. For a lesson about momentum, she designed a replica of the Space Mountain roller coaster ride at Disney World, using Starburst candy to simulate extra weight.

Murphy’s passion for encouraging young girls to pursue careers in fields traditionally dominated by men is her platform for the Miss Florida 2011 pageant.

“Science education isn’t usually fun all the time,” Murphy said. “My main objective is to show girls that they can be great at science and sparkle and shine — a career in math or science doesn’t necessarily mean being stuck in a lab.”

Murphy is one of many contestants whose personal experience serves as an advocacy platform for the contest.  UCF, which has a proud tradition of students and alumni competing for the Miss Florida title, has a record 11 women in this year’s contest.

The crowning takes place Saturday at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.

In addition to winning about $60,000 in scholarship money, in-kind donations and prizes, the winner advocates in Florida for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, a nonprofit that raises money for children’s hospitals.

The winner is, in part, prepared for this role by her platform.

Murphy, who hails from Milford, Mich., and won the title of Miss Kumquat Festival, wants to change the fact that women are underrepresented in math and science. For example, in 2008, 19 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in engineering and 25 percent of all degrees in math and computer science in the United States were awarded to women, according to the National Science Foundation.

This year contestant platforms include childhood literacy, suicide prevention awareness, caring for the elderly, promoting oral health in underserved communities and promoting healthy and active lifestyles for children.

Erin O’Flaherty, a Molecular and Microbiology major from Florence, S.C., chose suicide prevention so she could educate people to spot signs in loved ones or friends who may be contemplating suicide and encourage them to get help.  Having received training on the issue, O’Flaherty speaks to community groups, students – anyone who will listen.

“Suicide is 100 percent preventable,” said O’Flaherty, who won the Miss Florida Everglades contest that qualified her to compete for Miss Florida.

Someone commits suicide every 15 minutes in the U.S. When O’Flaherty was 14, her best friend took his life.

“My way of moving on is by using my story to help other people,” she said. “It’s therapeutic to talk about it and hopefully educate and maybe save someone. I always get very heartfelt messages. It is something people haven’t thought about before, that they can prevent it.”

Other contestants in Miss Florida are alumni Jacqueline Boehme (Miss University of Central Florida) from Winter Springs, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Molecular and Microbiology; Kate Judge (Miss Largo) from Voorhees, N.J., who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Music Education and now is a graduate student in the College of Education; Danielle Mueller (Miss Central Florida) from Plantation, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Event Management; and Stephanie Ziajka (Miss Pinellas County) from Orlando, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Actuarial Science.

In addition to Murphy and O’Flaherty, UCF students competing are Dasha Gonzalez (Miss Volusia County) from Orlando, who is studying Molecular and Microbiology; Amanda Harris (Miss Clay County) of Jacksonville, who is studying Advertising and Public Relations; Kristina Janolo (Miss Winter Park) of Kissimmee, who is studying Marketing; Sara York (Miss City Beautiful) from Dothan, Ala., who is studying Event Management; and Lauren Chase (Miss Florida Sunshine) from Sarasota, who will get a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies.

Several UCF alumni have been crowned Miss Florida in recent years, most recently Jaclyn Raulerson, who won last year. Other recent winners are Rachael Todd and Ericka Dunlap, the first African-American Miss Florida who went on to be the first UCF graduate to win the Miss America title in 2004.