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Powered by girls: Workshops seek to increase STEM interest

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Adele Bugnacki (left), Maddie Lacerte and Gianna Bugnacki at the Brainerd Girl Powered event work on the marshmallow challenge, where they try to build a free-standing structure as tall as they can with spaghetti, tape, string and a marshmallow at the highest point. Their structure ended up being the winner at 23.5 inches tall. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video 2 / 3
Girls at the Brainerd Girl Powered event work on the marshmallow challenge, during which they tried to build a free-standing structure as tall as they can with spaghetti, tape, string and a marshmallow at the highest point. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video 3 / 3

Engaging girls to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics—or STEM—could help put more women in professions within those fields.

That's the mission of the Girl Powered initiative, a collaboration of the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation and educational robotics company VEX Robotics. The partners invited teachers and others to host a Girl Powered workshop during the month of October to celebrate International Day of the Girl. With equipment supplied by the Brainerd Public Library and the leadership of Gina Walker, robotics coach at St. Francis of the Lakes Catholic School, one such event took place Saturday, Oct. 27, in Brainerd.

"Because technology is going to be a part of our lives, the more girls that go into STEM, the more influence we'll have on the stuff we're using," Walker told the group of about 20 students and parents gathered at the American Legion Post No. 255.

Together, participants explored the world of engineering by attempting to build the tallest free-standing structure with nothing but tape, string, dry spaghetti noodles and a marshmallow. They worked to set goals for themselves, and visited STEM stations showcasing handheld 3-D printing pens, snap circuits and Sphero robotic balls.

Walker, who earned a degree in electrical engineering and comes from a family with a number of engineers, explained her own experience wasn't typical. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economics and Statistics Administration, women filled 47 percent of all jobs in 2015 in the U.S., but accounted for fewer than 1 in 4 of positions in STEM fields. While nearly as many women have earned undergraduate degrees as men overall, women make up only about 30 percent of all STEM degree holders, the 2017 report stated. And women with STEM degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation; they are more likely to work in education or health care.

The mission of Girl Powered, according to its website, is to work to change this reality and to redefine the face of STEM.

"To accomplish this goal, we want to help our community recognize and overcome some of the societal obstacles that present themselves for girls at a very early age," the website states. "By identifying the common barriers that exist, we can break them down and work to create a more inclusive environment."

A study commissioned by Microsoft found girls show equal interest with boys in science and math during elementary school, but girls tend to lose this interest in middle school.

"Conformity to social expectations, gender stereotypes, gender roles and lack of role models continue to channel girls' career choices away from STEM fields," said psychology professor Martin Bauer of the London School of Economics, who helped coordinate the survey of 11,500 girls across 12 European countries, in a CNN Business article.

While the events focus on girls for these reasons and more, this does not mean Girl Powered intends to exclude boys, sponsors note. A few boys attended Saturday's Brainerd event.

" ... We are not pushing boys out—we think robotics is for everyone," the initiative's website stated. "We all want to continue to see our community grow and flourish with a fresh diversity of ideas and perspectives. We're encouraging hosts of Girl Powered workshops to make them open to any student who is interested."

For more photos, go to https://bit.ly/2DamhXQ.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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