Standing on City Stage at Union Station, Maria Flynn, president and CEO of Orbis Biosciences, had an important question for the audience in front of her.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
A buzz filled the room as seventh- and eighth-grade girls — students who gave up a Friday night to come in from Blue Valley, Olathe and elsewhere — shouted their answers.
“A corporate lawyer!”
The young girls will have plenty of time to decide what career they will choose. But Flynn’s purpose was to show them that a career in science, technology, engineering and math — STEM — is an option.
“You can’t go wrong with science and math,” Flynn told them. “Get as much of it as you can.”
Flynn was the keynote speaker for the 24th annual Science Pioneers' Expanding Your Horizons Conference recently, which brought hundreds of area middle school girls to Union Station for a night of exploration and hands-on workshops led by female mentors in STEM fields.
The event is part of a citywide push to get young girls involved and interested in STEM, the ubiquitous buzzword to describe the all-important fields of the future.
“There are many girls out there who don’t have any access or exposure to engineers or scientists,” said Laura Loyacono, director of the KC STEM Alliance. “Their parents maybe didn’t go to college or aren’t working at a company like Garmin or Sprint or Honeywell or Cerner, so their exposure to people in that world of work is limited, and we really hope to change that.”
In 2011, a report by the U.S. Department of Commerce that only one in seven engineers in the U.S. is female. The study also found that women hold fewer than 25 percent of STEM jobs and hold a small share of STEM undergraduate degrees.
In a Girl Scouts study, 57 percent of girls surveyed said girls their age typically don’t consider a career in STEM, and 47 percent said they would feel uncomfortable being the only girl in a group or class.
The issue is not that women are incapable of success in STEM fields, but rather that they are not exposed to it early on or can be intimidated by the male-dominated world.
That’s where groups like the KC STEM Alliance, Science Pioneers and Society of Women Engineers — among others — come in. Throughout Kansas City, these groups are working to show young girls that STEM careers can be as rewarding as they are fun.
Fun is exactly what area middle school girls looked like they were having at the Science Pioneers' Expanding Your Horizons Conference, where they got to explore Science City before breaking into groups for workshops.
Hundreds of girls climbed stairs and crossed bridges to get to the most popular attractions in the sprawling space.
A line quickly formed at the sky bike, where girls can pedal on a high wire 30 feet above the ground. The exercise is a teaching tool about gravity and balance, but to the young girls, it’s just plain cool.
Other girls consulted their provided maps, hurriedly making their way through the maze of stations, from the dino lab and dig site to the giant lever and nature center.
When free time ended, the girls split into groups to begin hands-on experiments with local mentors.
In the KinderLab, a group of about 20 girls tested the strength of perforated paper towels versus folded paper napkins by stretching them over a plastic cup and piling pennies on top. One by one, the girls counted the pennies, then graphed on a histogram how many coins it took for their paper product to break.
Four female mentors from MRIGlobal, a research institute based in Kansas City, helped the girls in the process, answering questions and providing guidance as they went along.
“I like hands-on experiments and science,” said Jaylie Postlewait, an eighth-grader at Frontier Trail Middle School in Olathe. “A lot of people think it’s a guy thing, but we can do it, too.”
Jaylie and her peer Abby Herrick, a seventh-grader at Frontier Trail, count pennies together as they test the toughness of their paper product.
“I thought it’d be cool to figure out what my career could be,” Abby said about attending the event.
In the next station, girls learned how to test water from mentor Kate Delehunt, an education coordinator for the Blue River Watershed Association.
“My name is Kate,” Delehunt told them. “I go to schools all over Kansas City and teach people how to test water for pollution.”
The girls put on the gloves and goggles at their tables and listened as Delehunt instructed them step by step.
Like the rest of the girls at the conference, Jaylie and Abby may go on to pursue their current aspirations, whether they want to be musicians, teachers or engineers. But what’s important is that they know they have options, that careers in science, technology, engineering and math can be fun, and they’re not just for boys.
The citywide effort to expose girls to STEM fields is also prevalent in schools across the metro area as teachers bring in the Project Lead the Way curriculum. A national program, it introduces students to engineering, biomedical science and computer science classes. Teachers receive specific training to provide problem-based activities and connect students with corporate mentors.
The Project Lead the Way curriculum has expanded to middle and elementary schools with programs like Gateway and Launch, which target younger girls with activities and lessons based on solving problems.
Robert Hofmann, the director of career and technical education at Shawnee Mission School District, partnered with Kansas City Women in Technology to create a mentoring program for middle school girls called Tech sHeroes. The program is still in its beginning stages at Trailridge Middle School.
“The mission behind that is to inspire young girls to join tech fields and to help shape their career opportunities through educating, mentoring and networking,” Hofmann said.
The mentors work with the girls on coding projects, offer job shadowing and take them on field trips. Hofmann hopes to extend the program to all middle schools.
“If the girls don’t have parents that are in technology or engineering fields, there’s always a misconception that it’s a guy’s club,” Hofmann said. “That’s why its really important at a younger age to get females involved.”
Hofmann said that out of 89 female students who graduated from Gateway to Technology classes in the eighth grade, only one signed up for Project Lead the Way classes in high school in Shawnee Mission. Studying what’s behind that kind of behavior is what Hofmann believes will lead to more interest and involvement among grade school girls.
“I think we’re starting to do a really good job at pinpointing what the barriers are, and I will continue to fight to bring those barriers down because I believe young ladies need those opportunities,” Hofmann said.
Other initiatives, like Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, provide assistance to teachers who hope meeting real women in STEM careers will spark an interest in young girls.
On a Friday in mid-February, high school girls spent the morning at the Overland Park Convention Center being introduced to mentors and disciplines in the engineering field.
Representatives from Garmin, Burns McDonnell, Black Veatch, Honeywell and Kiewit, among others, set up an alley of booths for the girls to navigate as they asked questions about what each company did and the jobs available in each.
In a separate room, experts explained the different disciplines within engineering, such as electrical, computer, civil and structural engineering. Their booths featured a variety of props and activities to demonstrate how their jobs affect daily life.
“What did you study in school?” a young girl asked a female representative.
“Where did you go to college?” another wanted to know.
“This field, there’s a lot of math,” an electrical engineer told three girls in front of her.
At the structural and civil engineering booth, two girls worked to build the strongest toothpick-and-marshmallow structure they could between two stacks of books.
“Traditionally boys are exposed to engineering at a younger age,” said Kristin Murray, co-chair of Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day and project manager at Honeywell. “There’s more toys with spatial reasoning and things like that for young boys than there are young girls. I think a lot of it is a culture thing, and that has been our mindset: Boys are good at math. And it’s not, obviously, that girls couldn’t do it, it’s just not even thinking that it’s an option.”
On the third floor of Haag Hall on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus, the morning light begins to shine through classroom windows as sixth- through eighth-grade girls sit in desks across from the chalkboard.
The girls are here on a Saturday morning to learn about science — and to make new friends and have a little fun.
The classes, taught by local women in STEM fields, are part of the Science Pioneers' Expanding Your Horizons Expansion Program. The four hours of workshops allow the girls to work in small groups and explore specific career options.
In the Science Sensation: Magic and Mysteries workshop, the girls learn about solvents and solutes by making rock candy in a plastic cup.
“What’s going to happen when we put the toothpicks in the water?” a mentor, currently a student at UMKC, asks.
“Crystals will build on top of each other,” a student answers.
She’s right. The girls drop the toothpicks in and set them on a windowsill to harden while they move on to the next project: a magic show.
The girls divide into groups and learn special tricks, all relating to science, that they will later perform for the class.
In the next room, girls work in pairs to build a tower out of spaghetti noodles and marshmallows.
They’re given a tight budget of $400, with each marshmallow costing $10 and each spaghetti noodle $5, to make the challenge an exercise in civil engineering.
“I think there’s spaghetti in my shoe!” one girl says with a giggle as the rest join in.
Caroline Newport, an eighth-grader at Blue Valley Middle School, has attended these workshops three times now.
“Last year I took a zoo class, and I learned a lot about that,” Caroline said. “A lot of girls think that it’s more of a boys thing, but that’s really not true. It’s fun for everyone.”
Thanks to programs like these, young girls get the opportunity to see that doors are open — all they have to do is walk through them.
“I always say this, ‘If I had this when I was in sixth, seventh and eighth grade, I would have gone into a STEM career,’ but I never had that so I think it’s important to try new things,” said Shea O’Riley, operations manager and Expansion Program coordinator for Science Pioneers. “It’s intimidating, because they don’t think they’re smart enough or good enough, but they are. They get it.”