Girl Powered event helps STEM gap in science fields
Story and photos by Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Fifth grader Melia Robison and seventh grader Angelica Martinez culled all their cognitive powers and focused on the computer screen in front of them.
They were not – absolutely not – going to let an insignificant line of coding defeat them.
Then a click-click-click and a tap-tap-tap.
Quick. Grab the LEGO MindStorms robot. Place it on the floor, where various strips of tape are lined up and serving as starting — and stopping — lines.
Watch the robot churn its wheels in a high-pitch zip and stop at the correct line, then slowly turn.
“It worked!” Robison and Martinez said.
They smiled in glee after completing one of the stations at the Girl Powered STEM Workshop Saturday in the Grand Canyon University Technology Building.
For the second year, the GCU Robotics Club partnered not only with VEX Robotics but the Robotics Education Competition Foundation and the campus’ K12 Educational Development to bring the workshop to campus. This year, the free workshop exceeded capacity, with 40 girls showing up to fire up their neurons in science, technology, engineering and math concepts – and to listen to women speakers who work in the STEM fields.
One of those speakers, GCU Associate Dean of Engineering Dr. Janet Brelin-Fornari, spoke about when she first thought she could become an engineer. It was for a school project in which she did a mechanical drawing of an airplane.
“I won an award for that. … It was the turning point that made me think, you know what? Mechanical engineering is something I can do. … It made a big difference in my life,” Brelin-Fornari said.
That’s something the workshop’s organizers were hoping the Girl Powered workshop might spark – that turning point when it might click in the minds of some of those fourth through eighth grade attendees that a career in STEM could be something for them, too.
Corinne Araza, K12 STEM Outreach Director, said, “Girls are deciding their professions as early as the fourth grade, and if they aren’t exposed to professional women in these fields, they are less likely to believe they, too, can be a robotics engineer, for example.”
Brelin-Fornari also told the students about the work she has done in crash safety. She has worked with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the last eight years in developing a side-impact standard for child seats.
One of the cool things that has happened in her career, she said, was to see herself featured in a video at Target stores speaking to consumers about crash safety.
GCU Robotics Club President Makayla Jewell asked the speakers panel, which also included rocket engineer Amy Peters and landscape architect Andrea Pedersen, about some of the failures they’ve experienced in their careers.
Brelin-Fornari said she remembers a time when someone forgot to buckle the seat of the crash-test dummy that ended up sailing through the air after the test car, which sped forward at 30 miles per hour, made a hard stop.
“We learned we had to have a better process,” she said, adding how things sometimes don’t come out the way you design them. “… That’s engineering. We learn as much from the things that don’t come out as the things that do.”
Peters, Senior Director of Mission Assurance Engineering for Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, shared with the students that even the smartest engineers sometimes forget things and spoke about a time when her company was supposed to launch a rocket for a customer who paid for that rocket to go up on a certain day.
The rocket didn’t launch.
“Those cases are a little embarrassing,” she said, and it ended up being one team thinking another team had completed a certain task and the other team thinking the same thing when, in the end, no one completed that task. Without that communication between the teams, the rocket failed to launch. It was something that the engineers quickly fixed and were able to launch the rocket two days later.
“At the end of the day, we got better. … Don’t be afraid of failures,” Peters said.
Pedersen, who works with Studio DPA Planning and Landscape Architecture, spoke about her job designing landscapes for neighborhoods and shopping centers for projects not just in the United States but in Africa, Haiti and China.
“You think landscape architects only deal with plants, but we also deal with the technical stuff,” Pedersen said, and addressed the amount of teamwork that goes into what she does.
She works with the owners of the land on which projects are being built but also with the city, which approves the projects. Sometimes it takes up to two years for a project to be approved, she said.
Pedersen also works with contractors who sometimes will counter her designs. She said she has told contractors before, “No, this is what I drew. This is what the city requires. … You have to build that,” but she has listened to contractors, too, to make sure she hasn’t made a mistake — and like everyone, she has made those mistakes. It’s about working with a team but also having confidence in yourself, she told the students.
When Jewell asked the three panelists about awards they have won, Pedersen conveyed how the award for her is something different — when she happens to drive by one of her landscape designs.
“I’ll say, ‘Hey, that’s cool,’ ” she said.
In addition to listening to the speakers, the workshop attendees played the Meet New Friends Bingo Game as an ice breaker, then rotated through various STEM stations. Besides programming LEGO MindStorms robots, they made a simple battery motor and also stirred together some gooey gak, a slime-type substance that’s a non-Newtonian fluid, acting both as a solid and a liquid depending on the amount of pressure placed upon it.
Jennifer Holt signed up her two daughters for the workshop. Her oldest daughter saw a flyer about the event at her school, North Valley Christian Academy, and was excited about attending.
Holt said her father was a nuclear engineer and she was in the nuclear engineering program in the Navy. She has passed down that love of science and engineering to her daughters.
“We like to do experiments at home,” she said, but she always is looking for ways to encourage her daughters and was most looking forward to her daughters hearing from the women on the STEM panel.
Ann Sanchez, a GCU sophomore computer programming major who wants to be a software developer, was one of more than a dozen Robotics Club members who volunteered at the workshop.
Sanchez said her parents are first-generation immigrants. None of her family members are involved in STEM.
“They definitely think it’s a little different,” she said of her parents’ reaction to her choice of a STEM career, “But they’re excited for me.”
The workshop was important, she said, “to raise awareness (of the STEM fields) and encourage females to join the field.”
VEX Robotics came up with its Girl Powered initiative after noticing that most of the students competing at their robotics events were boys – only 23% were girls. The company wanted to change that statistic and encourage more diversity in the robotics world. The number of women working in the STEM field also is not equal to the number of men in the field, according to VEX, which notes only 24% of those employed in STEM fields are women.
Fellow Robotics Club member Madi Abercrombie, a GCU sophomore psychology major, was busy Saturday helping girls program their LEGO MindStorms robots and seeing some success – and some failures, too – but also saw a lot of learning.
“I really do believe the big gap between engineers – male and female – is that girls are told it’s a boy’s job,” Abercrombie said. “We’re empowering girls at a younger age and helping them to have confidence.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-639-7901.
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