Last weekend, Kathleen, St. Joseph’s Principal, and I took five eighth
grade girls to the Girls in Engineering, Math and Science (GEMS) conference at South Dakota State University in Brookings, South Dakota. GEMS is designed to show girls career options in science, math and technology – fields where girls are underrepresented.
One reason may be that when girls take algebra in eighth or ninth grade, it is the first time they have to really struggle with a subject. As a result, girls may come to the faulty conclusion that “Math is not for me!” or that “Math is for boys.”
At GEMS, they meet a lot of young women who love math and science and who excel at it. Having female role models helps break the stereotype that certain subjects or careers are off limits.
Engineering and math are all about solving problems, so our fearless girls got to try their hand at solving some interesting problems at GEMS. One problem was how to build a bridge that would hold up the maximum amount of weight while using the minimum amount of weight in materials. Several students of civil engineering were on hand to help with blueprints and construction supplies. The girls used folded paper, tape and brads to build a girder and beam-type structure that even survived the trip home.
Next, they got to try their hand at forensic science. They had to determine which of two suspects broke into the lab and stole some copper tubing. They took hair samples, dental impressions, fingerprints and footprints. They ran a chemical analysis of some powder that was left at the scene. A scientist from the state crime lab was there to show them how to do hair analysis. Pretty soon they had their culprit.
Finally, they got to program a small robot to run through a maze. They did all of the programming separately on a computer. The maze was laid out on the floor in another room, so they had to walk back and forth between runs. It was a matter of repeated trial and error. Each time they would get the robot to go a little farther and make the turns a little better. Mechanical engineering students were on hand to offer encouragement and suggestions on how to tweak the program. “Maybe you should try this…”
Even we chaperones were offered a challenge. We were given a pile of
parts and had to make a working robot. We had a battery, two motors, two wheels, a controller and a bunch of wires. With some encouragement, we found that we could follow directions and use the tools we were given. With patience and perseverance we managed to hook everything together. It was very satisfying to drive our little robot around in circles on the floor. Yipppeee!
GEMS was a good opportunity for our eighth graders to see what kinds of career choices were available to them. It was also a good opportunity to start talking about high school curriculum choices. The kinds of classes that they choose to take in high school can affect the college paths open to them. Most of our girls aren’t thinking quite that far into the future.
St. Joseph’s Indian School is a place of possibilities, where we try to expose our students to many options for their futures. Thanks to the staff and volunteers at GEMS for giving our girls such a great learning opportunity and for acting as positive role models. Girls Rock! Thank you also to all our generous benefactors who make trips like these possible. We couldn’t have learning experiences like this without you.