Girls in STEM event inspires and encourages girls to pursue related careers

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In the breakout box workshop, participants smash pumpkins to reveal their next clue hidden inside it at the Arizona Science Center on Oct. 27, 2018. (Alexis Alabado, DD)

The results are in: puzzles, problem-solving, chemistry and math make for one cool future for girls interested in STEM careers.

“I want to do science when I grow up, like forensics,” said seventh-grader Serena Das, who participated in the sixth annual Girls in STEM event at the Arizona Science Center on Saturday.

The day involved 112 girls and several female mentors networking, gaining a love of the STEM field, and working together in Halloween-style science, technology, engineering and mathematics workshops, Director of Youth Programs at Arizona Science Center Alyson Walker said.

“It’s not just the mentors talking at them, but it’s the mentors problem-solving with the girls, which is really meaningful,” Walker said. “It develops these personal connections and shows them they can have that female mentorship in a STEM career.”

The program is targeted at fourth to eighth-grade girls, as research shows they begin losing interest in STEM careers around this time, Walker said.

“Our mission is to inspire, educate and engage,” Walker said. “Girls in STEM aligns so closely with that. We know that females are underrepresented in STEM careers, and we have this growing need for individuals to pursue STEM careers, so we really want to close that gap and make sure we have more females in the field moving forward.”

Linda Nelson, a member of the University of Arizona’s Women in Medicine Committee, said a lack of role models can lead girls to lose their interest in STEM.

In the candy chemistry lab, girls crush up different kinds of Halloween treats and test their pH levels at the Arizona Science Center on Oct. 27, 2018. (Alexis Alabado, DD)

“Boys and girls do pretty similar until middle school, when there’s a subtle social pressure where girls don’t want to compete in those fields,” Nelson said.

Arizona Science Center’s chief learning officer Beth Nickel said she wishes more schools offered programs encouraging girls to pursue STEM so they would know that it’s perfectly fine to follow their passions.

“We’re slowly gaining ground, and I think we’ll see the impact of what we’re doing now in the future,” Nickel said.

Engagement with STEM before high school is key to making sure kids take related courses in higher education settings, Nickel said.

Walker said after completing the Girls in STEM event in 2017, participants surveys reported that girls’ definite interests in STEM rose from 58.2 percent to 78.3 percent. Surveys also showed that definite or strong potential interests in working in a STEM career increased from 74.6 percent to 90 percent.

Denise Sims Hicks, a STEM mentor at the event, said her daughter previously participated in Girls in STEM and is now in college pursuing a STEM-related major. Sims Hicks said the program cultivates an environment of empowered girls and shows them that STEM offers many different paths.

“There’s a fleet of people here trying to make sure you get on a ship,” she said. “I don’t care which ship you pick, but you gotta get on one.”

Participants get a look at what a 3-D printer can make in the electronics zone at the Arizona Science Center on Oct. 27, 2018. (Alexis Alabado, DD)

Savannah Gadberry, a returning mentor who graduated with an engineering degree a few years ago, said being one of the few women in her office motivated her to volunteer for these kinds of events.

“I think it’s important to give back and encourage young girls to pursue these types of careers,” she said. “The hands-on activities give girls an idea of what it actually means to be in the STEM field.”

Participants worked with a printing press, used their problem-solving skills in an “escape room” style workshop, and went to a lab for some candy chemistry, among other things. For seventh grader Gargee Tamboli, having a way to express her creativity was the best part of the day, she said.

“It gives me inspiration to see these great women rise up from the very bottom and become accomplished in life,” Tamboli said.

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