Las Positas event to promote girls in STEM
By Lou Fancher
The eureka moment, a realization breaking the logjam preventing girls from entering careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) may finally have reached its tipping point. The simple, two-step solution? Hands-on access and gender-neutral mentoring.
In the Tri-Valley, the 37th annual Tri-Valley Expanding Your Horizons one-day conference designed for girls in sixth grade and higher is meant to foster a rising tide of future female scientists. The event invites 300 girls to build bridges (with pasta, learning structural engineering and architectural principles), rip apart computers (exploring internal components and rebuilding the system), splatter-coat a penny and blow up a marshmallow (discovering vacuums and how they work), send scam emails (mastering cryptology and computer security coding), assemble a solar car (applying energy and environmental knowledge to small-scale modeling) and more.
This year's conference will be held Feb. 28 at the Las Positas College Gymnasium in Livermore. The girls' program begins at 8:30 a.m. with a parent's workshop covering college planning, financial aid and other secondary education information at 9 a.m.
The conference comes courtesy of a coalition of sponsoring partners: Lawrence Livermore National Security LLC; Sandia National Laboratories, California; Las Positas College; and the American Association of University Women.
As a Livermore Lab senior staff member, co-chair Susan Springer has volunteered with the conferences for 17 years. Recalling her middle and high school years, it's not difficult to understand what motivates her to participate.
"When I was going to school, I was discouraged from taking science courses," Springer says. "My parents told me the only reason I wanted to take them was to be with boys. They encouraged typing, home-ec and shorthand. I want girls to have an opportunity I didn't have."
Co-chair Kim Hallock, a user services manager at the lab, says that the two 90-minute workshops each girl selects at the conference provide instant engagement.
"It clicks. It makes it more real-world than classes that leave us wondering how science or math applies," Hallock says.
Recalling her earliest hands-on experiences, Hallock says a high school biology teacher who led his students on after-school and weekend backpacking trips made the outdoors come alive. Springer learned the most from bulls.
"I raised steers," she says. "I was a Future Farmer of America and won a reserve champion award at the fair one year."
Like many scientific breakthroughs, answering the riddle of how to engage girls in STEM by walking in the woods or raising an animal to full growth seems simple, even elegant. But the two Livermore residents agree that cracking the unspoken code of STEM jobs traditionally filled by men remains a work-in-progress.
Hallock's professional focus is human resources, but she has a clear view of the engineering and physics fields.
"I'm seeing small inroads: more women postdocs. I'd like to see more upper management. I'm encouraged by women in their early 20s entering in higher numbers than before, but it's still not equitable," she says.
Upper management in Springer's computational department is largely female, but she says new hires coming in are male.
At the brighter end of the spectrum, Springer mentions Elizabeth Wheeler, an LLNL group leader in the Materials Engineering Division and a conference alumni. Wheeler attended two conferences in the mid-1980s, and Springer says the experience shaped her career choices.
Wheeler confirms -- and goes on to say her older daughter will participate this year for a third time and her younger daughter "can't wait to attend next year and never misses an opportunity to remind me it's unfair she can't attend yet."
In addition to the conference's experiential sessions, interacting with female role models -- women working in STEM -- is an integral component.
Hallock says finding volunteer mentors sometimes takes "a little fishing," but once people sign on, they value the experience.
The conference is open to boys, although Springer says that usually only a handful attend. The focus clearly is on reaching girls. A scholarship is offered to any student or parent unable to afford the $20 tuition. Last year, 45 scholarships were given.
Springer said that noticing a lack of students of color at conferences a few years ago, the conference began targeting Title One schools by offering free tuition and assistance with transportation to any student from Junction Avenue K-8 and Joe Michell School.