Women’s Foundation encourages girls to move full-STEAM ahead

The Women’s Foundation of Florida sponsored its first Girls Leadership Institute — STEAM Academy at Palm Beach State College’s Belle Glade campus on Oct. 14.

The program was made possible with a grant from the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County. Fifty girls attended from middle and high schools and various organizations countywide.

Parents were also invited to stay and participate in a workshop designed specifically to help them understand STEAM — the areas of study known as science, technology, engineering, arts and math — which may help the parents encourage their daughters to stay in the STEAM fields.

“Our STEAM academy empowers girls to be leaders in their own life and the world around them,” Judith Selzer said. Selzer, who is the co-founder and president of the Women’s Foundation of Florida, said the academy can inspire a new generation of girls. “Hands-on exploration, mentoring and team building inspire these girls to lean into science, technology, engineering and math,” she said.

Businesses and organizations that participated in the event include Myotopia, Future Landscape Architects of America (FLAA), Scripps Research Institute, Manatee Lagoon — An FPL Eco-Discovery Center, Tinu Pena — Civil Engineering Consultant, American Institute of Architects (AIA), Luis Paniagua, (Pahokee Middle School science teacher), Sara Corvil (Palm Beach State College STEM Department) and Florida Atlantic University Student Chapter of Society of Women Engineers (FAU SWE).

The Girls STEAM Academy workshops included Landscape Architecture and Creative Communities, which walked the girls through the process it takes from an idea and development to the presentation on how to design landscapes; DNA Isolation — What Makes you “you”? — where scientists from Scripps Research Institute worked with the students to harvest and analyze their own DNA; and Manatee Scar Identification, a lab activity and game of Manatee Lagoon Bingo to review more about manatees and other marine life found in local areas.

Other workshops were Muscles, Mechanics and Technology; Engineering — Building Bridges; Introduction to Architecture; Science Fun; and How Stoplights Work.

Girls and women are underrepresented in these areas and research shows the jobs of the future are in STEM fields. They are also the higher-paying jobs, Takeata King Pang said. King Pang is the chief programs officer for the Women’s Foundation of Florida. She added that it is difficult to keep girls interested in STEM fields for the long term.

“The problem is we see a huge dropoff from girls in (their) eighth-grade year to high school,” she said. “Girls are not being represented at the high school level, but we found that if you really foster that passion in the middle school years, they actually stay more involved and are more likely to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and math.”

About 74 percent of girls express interest in STEM fields in middle school but are significantly underrepresented in these careers when they become adults, according to a statement from the Women’s Foundation of Florida.

In STEAM programs, the “A” stands for the arts, which needs to be included because graphic arts are a part of science, technology, engineering and math. King Pang said. DNA models and charts, for example, feature artistic elements so it is important to let the girls know how the arts fit into STEM careers as well, she said.

Corvil, of Palm Beach State College’s Palm Beach Gardens STEM department, partnered with Paniagua, a science teacher from Pahokee Middle School, for a workshop called “Science Fun” to teach the girls how to make kites and parachutes out of tissue paper and other materials. Corvil said the students were instructed to design the kites and parachutes in a way that they would be able to fly and they did. “We also did another project where they made boats out of straws and the boats had to float,” she said. “We added weights on (the boats) to see at what point would they capsize.”

Using these resources efficiently taught them many aspects of the science world, Corvil said. “It taught them physics,” she said. “It taught them with gravity and mass, how you construct things. They need to be designed to be able to withhold a certain amount of weight or withstand wind.”

Corvil said she thinks teamwork was the most important thing the girls learned from the workshop. “A lot of personalities came to the forefront when it came to being creative and an innovative,” she said. “Some girls preferred to work by themselves. But we tried to instill that in the real world, these technologies, innovations and designs are often done in a team. So we encouraged them to consider each other’s opinions and past experiences and we tried to get them to work together.”

King Pang said this was the first Girls STEAM Academy in Belle Glade and they hope it offers more access to these types of programs for the western communities. They held three previous STEM/STEAM events in eastern Palm Beach County. A new component at the Belle Glade Girls STEAM Academy was including parents in an effort to encourage the girls to stay interested in STEM programs.

“Normally before this year we (asked) the parents to leave because it’s very important for the girls to have that independent ability to experience the day on their own,” King Pang said.

“(But at this event), the girls went off into their first set of workshops and then we took the adults into a separate area and they had their own workshop.”

Parents will also be sent monthly STEM experiments so they can do these projects with their children at home. “Walking them through the project and showing them how much fun it is really encourages them to go home and do it with their kids,” King Pang said. “They can then help their children to stay interested in these programs.”

She said watching the movie “Hidden Figures” and discussing how important women have been to science, technology, engineering and math might be a fun project for the parents, girls, and their friends to do at home. “We would have never gotten to the moon without those three women (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson) who did the math and made sure we could actually do it,” King Pang said.

Corvil seemed to reflect a similar view saying that educating girls in a fun way about STEM fields can also inspire them and encourage diversity.

“I think these activities are important for the girls because there is a dire need to educate and inspire girls in the STEM fields,” she said. “We really lack diversity. Degree programs and having a woman’s perspective to create technology would really make our world a better place.”

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