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August 28, 2012 > Encouraging girls to pursue careers in science and technology

Encouraging girls to pursue careers in science and technology

By Annie Yu

Despite the fact that women outnumber men in college, only 17.8% of engineering degrees in 2009 went to women, according to the American Society of Engineering Education. Women's aspirations in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are formed at an early age by environment, particularly a negative stereotype that boys are better suited for math and science.

Play-Well TEKnologies, a national organization that uses LEGOs to promote engineering, architecture and science to children, introduces STEM fields to young girls. Play-Well initiated a week-long LEGO robotics and engineering camp at the Irvington Community Center August 13-17 geared specifically for girls between second and fifth grade. "The goal of programs such as Play-Well's is to... [demystify] engineering, so that these young female students can see themselves one day as engineers, computer programmers, and scientists," a Play-Well representative said

The program held two classes every day: an engineering class in the morning and a robotics class in the afternoon. The morning class, titled "Junkyard Challenge," challenged the girls to work in teams with a loosely-structured goal of creative problem solving. In one class, the girls learned about using gears and transmissions to make a car go faster; in another class, they had to figure out how to build a bridge that could support a specified weight. The afternoon class, titled "LEGO Robotics for Girls," taught problem solving with a robotics program. The girls learned how programming works and to think in a logical manner.

Instructor Stephanie Ueland says she noticed a big difference in a girls-only program. "Sometimes boys can be very competitive, so you have conflicts: 'this is my idea' versus 'this is my idea,'" she said. "The girls tend to work far better collaboratively... they are able to accomplish the task that much sooner."

The all-girls program uses the same core curriculum and concepts but with a slightly different emphasis and appeal. "The boys really like battling, and sometimes the girls have fun with that but sometimes they don't," Ueland said. "[Many] girls like to build houses, so we built awesome, really intricate castles and then we attacked them with catapults."

Both Ueland and fellow instructor Briana Headley interest in science was sparked as young students at an all-girls summer camp. "It was just all about letting us explore our excitement for science and engineering. It was very empowering," Headley said.

"I think being exposed to female scientists and female engineers as role models can be hugely inspiring," Ueland said. "We hope to be good role models. We're actively thinking about how to be inspiring and supportive of the girls as they're learning."

Headley stresses the importance of female role models to young girls. When she asked a nine-year-old female student what she thought of girls in science and engineering, the girl said 'girls aren't allowed in science.' "That was very upsetting," Headley said. She noticed some girls had a similar attitude toward LEGOs, which are mostly marketed to boys. "[The girls] see that it's targeted not to them but to somebody else... they don't miss it," Headley said.

Ueland knows there is an obstacle for girls pursuing a STEM education, but her goal is to make it more accessible and to encourage the girls to go for it. She will be teaching another all-girls program this fall at the Play-Well Pleasanton Activity Center.

"I'm inspired to be around the children," Ueland said. "I think once they give [engineering] a shot, they'll find that it's not hard. It's fun and rewarding."


For more information on future Play-Well classes, visit www.play-well.org.

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