NOT Grandpa's Science Class: Girls Geek Day

Nov 19, 2015

Despite the fact that jobs in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields pay better than average (33%) and have lower unemployment rates, women are significantly underrepresented in those fields. There’s a variety of theories about how to solve this disparity, but one Charlottesville teacher thinks that getting girls interested in “STEM” subjects early on can be a big help. WMRA’s Emily Richardson-Lorente has the story.

Imagine a group of engineers designing a ramp. They’re hunched over a scale model, shifting pieces from here to there, testing, failing, trying again. Can you see them? Here’s what they sound like:

KIDS: Ooooh. So, Julia, this takes a pretty sharp turn here … doesn’t it need more speed though … so if I curve this this way ... try it again.  [Sound from Keva Plank class]

These engineers are in the 1st and 5th grades, and they’re here at Crozet Elementary School on a Saturday morning, participating in an event called Girls’ Geek Day.

PAULA WHITE: Girls’ Geek Day is an opportunity for girls to explore different activities that are around science, technology, engineering, and math and hopefully find their passion.

Paula White is a gifted resource teacher in Albemarle County. She started Girls’ Geek Day four years ago as a way to help boost girls’ participation in the “STEM” fields.

WHITE: It's building confidence in girls and helping them understand that just because they're females they're not less than anyone else. So it's an attempt to help build their sense of self and self-confidence.
 
KIDS: Oh yes! Julia, it's working!  [Sound from Keva Plank class]
 
There are about 40 girls participating here today —from kindergartners to 5th graders — and many already seem pretty confident. Or at least they’re not cowed by activities like the “Keva Plank challenge,” “Ultimate Tic Tac Toe” or “Math in the Real World.” But research shows that once these girls hit middle school, they’re likely to start shying away from the STEM subjects. Which in turn means they’re much less likely to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or math, even though those careers are more in demand and more lucrative. Part of the problem is undoubtedly stereotypes.

KIM WILKENS: When you think of computer science you think of that nerd in their basement doing stuff by themselves and so that's a big hurdle to get over.  

Kim Wilkens teaches computer science in Charlottesville. She also runs an organization called Tech Girls, and helps coordinate these Girls’ Geek Days.

WILKENS: I’m not trying to turn everybody into computer scientists but I feel that technology is such a part of our everyday lives that everybody — whoever they are — needs to have some basic understanding of coding and computer science wherever they're going to end up.

[Sound from Scratch class]
GIRL: This seems cool.
MEGAN: You see? You can control what the cat does just by using your space bar …
 
Some of the girls here today are learning to code by animating a cat in a program called Scratch. Seventeen-year old Megan Bird is providing instruction. She says she loves STEM, but sees a lack of confidence in it with girls — herself included.

MEGAN: I probably could have more confidence in it as well. But I love it, so I would like to grow that confidence.
EMILY: What do you love about it?
MEGAN: I love the creativity that it requires. And the patience that it requires to figure out just one problem.

LYNN: Ha! Look at that!  [Sound from robotics class]

Meanwhile down the hallway, another group of girls is programming four-wheeled robots.

JUSTIN: How was that, Kinley?
KINLEY: Good.    

A couple of dads are here in the room today. Justin Callahan is sitting with his six-year old daughter Kinley.

JUSTIN CALLAHAN:  She is trying to make a robot drive around a box and she's doing a pretty good job.

JUSTIN: There it goes. It’s off!  [Sound from robotics class]

This is actually Kinley’s 3rd time at Girls’ Geek Day.

JUSTIN: It makes her confident, makes her try things she wouldn't try otherwise. It's a fun way to spend some time with your daughter.

LYNN: Oh, there we go!
JUSTIN: There we go!
LYNN: Yay! We did it guys! Look, it drove forward for one second!

LYNN NICHOLS: Girls are taught - more so than boys - that they shouldn't break things.

Lynn Nichols is leading the robotics workshop.

LYNN NICHOLS: And we're really encouraging that growth mindset to help girls feel comfortable making mistakes. And not being perfect from the get-go. And really continuing to persevere despite obstacles.
 
BRYNN JEFFERSON: Ta-da! We have our motor!  [Sound from Little Bits class]

Brynn Jefferson is one of those girls who persevered. She’s in 11th grade now, and is here today leading a circuitry workshop called “Little Bits.”

BRYNN JEFFERSON: I'm on a robotics team and I am one of a tiny percentage of girls. Like, it's almost comical when you walk in and just a sea of boy heads turn and then there's no girls there, and it's really sad and it's a lot easier when people are younger and they're still figuring out who they are, to be like hey STEM is an option it's not just like a boy's club, look at how fun these circuits are.  You can grow up, you can keep doing them and really just try to even out the ratio. That's something I'm super passionate about.

These monthly events rely on volunteers like Brynn. Girls’ Geek Day is free, though registration is required. At the moment, the events are held only in Albermarle County, but founder Paula White says she’s recently had requests from educators who’d like to start their own Girls’ Geek Days in Harrisonburg and the Richmond area. Which means that this …

BRYNN: Ta-da! We have our gas pedal!  [Sound from Little Bits class]

… may be coming soon to a school near you.