STEM: It's a Girl Thing

May 13, 2016

‘Fun’ conference invites girls to embrace science, technology, engineering and math

Flying drones. Artic parkas. Robots made from toothbrushes. All this, and more, was part of STEM: It’s a Girl Thing, a half-day workshop for fourth and fifth-grade girls at Johnson County Community College. 

It was a first for JCCC to host such an event. Sponsored by JCCC and SkillBuilders Fund, It’s a Girl Thing brought 108 girls and their moms, grandmas or other significant women in their lives to learn about the wonder and power of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). 

Talking space with an engineer 

The girls and their grown-ups gathered to hear Emily Arnold, an assistant professor in the aerospace engineering department at the University of Kansas. Arnold grew up in Hillsboro, Kansas, a small, rural town without many engineers to learn from.  

“Around me were mostly farmers,” she said. “We had few technology classes in high school…but there was something about me: I was always excited about space.” 

Arnold, who specializes in structures and design engineering, explained her job with a visual aid.  “My husband likes to keep cookies on the top shelf, but I have a little bit of trouble reaching them…so I need to use a stool of some kind,” Arnold said. 

She pulled out a box about three inches tall. “Looks about the right size, right?” she asked the girls. She placed it at her feet and stepped onto it, only to have it loudly splinter under her weight. “What was wrong, guys?”  It was Arnold’s way of teaching about the structural strength of a design. 

Arnold also dressed a volunteer in the gear she wore to Antarctica to test a million-dollar drone, then pulled out a much simpler drone she ordered from for $200. “Technology has come a long way,” she explained. 

Divide and learn  

The girls and their grownups then took separate paths. For the girls, four hands-on sessions introduced them to key STEM ideas in concrete ways, like copying a DNA sequence using beads to make a bracelet. 

The adults could attend sessions on educational and career opportunities for females in STEM fields. They also were invited to try their hand at computer coding.

“I was not familiar with STEM prior to this event,” said Brandy McDonald, mother to Marlee McDonald, who attends Ridgeview Elementary, Olathe. “I really have enjoyed hearing about the opportunities specifically for girls.” 

Marlee’s classmate, Kaitlyn Curtin, said she enjoyed creating a “bristlebot,” a small robot using only the head of a toothbrush, a round battery and a small motor. Through trial and error, Kaitlyn learned that the bristlebot “ran” faster when the battery sat atop the motor and slowed when she reversed the order. 

 “We had a dance party with the robots to see which one could go faster and dance around the most,” she said. “It was fun watching them.”