Sunday, July 5, 2015

Getting the Girls (and everyone else) Involved in STEM!

For years, there has been a lot of chatter about getting girls involved in traditionally male STEM careers like engineering in robotics and coding for computers. Actually, I would like to see more
support for all students who are interested in STEM activities. We have plenty of academic science and math courses. All students are required to take at least three years of science and math at my school. So girls see plenty of action in those fields at our school.

Unfortunately at this time, we offer no engineering courses and there are only a couple of advanced technology (all computer related) options. Obviously, the practical and hands on aspects of STEM are not yet being addressed in a formal classroom setting. I think funding, A-G requirements and credentialing contribute to this situation. We do have several STEM related clubs on my campus, including a robotics club, a health science club and a chemistry club.  

I am a co-advisor to one of the STEM clubs that competes with 40 other high schools in Southern California.  The name of the competition is Solar Cup, sponsored by Metropolitan Water District. Students construct a wooden canoe-style speed boat in which they put an electric battery powered motor that is recharged by solar panels. There are several facets to this competition including technical drawing and electrical engineering, construction, experimentation and design tests as well as research, creating technical reports, developing a business presence and a public service message about water conservation.

I am really proud to say that we have diversity among ethnic groups as well as gender balance in the LOHS Solar Cup Team. It helps to have a variety of tasks and ways to get the girls interested from the beginning phases of the event.  At the beginning of the year, we promote the club asking all potential team members if they are interested in art, racing, science and water conservation. I think the girls feel more comfortable being involved in a traditionally male dominated field (construction and engineering) because both advisors are women in addition to being science teachers. There are other women in the administrative support and organizational phases, but very few actually working with students to construct and engineer the boat. Neither of us is an engineering or construction professional, so we rely on the students to learn the process somewhat independently. We have been working with a parent volunteer who IS really good at mechanical design and construction. Needless to say, he has been invaluable in the technical aspects of the project. Our students develop expertise in these areas and they teach us new things all the time. The two of us have learned a great deal over the last few years about electrical design from our students, other advisors and the parents who volunteer to help us.

Since much of the engineering world is traditionally male-centric, I think it helps the girls to have a couple of willing and confident female role models. The boys also learn to view women and girls in these roles as well, so they won't be biased against females in this type of workplace.

I think it is interesting that some of our male competitors tend to overlook us- but our team is a force to be reckoned with. In our fourth year of participation, we have gone from 22 place (out of 40 schools) to 9th to 5th last year. This year we took 3rd place!

See what the sprint race (without solar panels) looks like from the vantage of the flag post (stern) of the boat.  Harry's Sprint Race (gopro video)

For several of our students (girls and boys alike) - it has been a life changing experience and has become a PASSION. Here are some of the choices our students have made as a result of the influence our club has had on their lives. One young man is finishing up his degree in materials science at Johns Hopkins University. A young lady is now majoring in mathematics at Cal Poly Pomona University. One of our girls is attending Chapman University majoring in theater production. Another young lady is currently in the nursing program at California Baptist University. One of our boys is at Cal Poly San Louis Obispo majoring in construction management. Two years ago, several of our seniors graduated and are currently pursuing majors in biology, engineering, astrophysics and environmental science.

This coming year we will have at least 2 seniors who are planning on going into engineering majors when they graduate. The male student is going to go into electrical engineering, which in itself is no surprise since he has been playing with wiring since he was a five year old. But our club gave him an outlet to shine and become a leader among his peers. The young lady got an opportunity to participate in an internship with a local solar electrical engineering start up firm. Her experience with us gave her the confidence to apply and the desire to move from biology to environmental engineering.

Would these students have chosen these career paths without our club? Yes, they might have selected STEM pathways, but they (or their parents) all have told us that our club was a major factor in that decision.  However, I believe that the opportunities we provide help them to know better what they are getting into. All of our students, girls and boys alike, get to have hands-on experiences in STEM related career pathways.

The only thing that might be better is to develop courses like this to allow students that opportunity to practice technology and engineering integration into science and math.