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STEM lessons start early

Maryland programs engage young girls in technology, more

For years, coding and technology were largely seen as classes for boys and career fields for men. More recently, there has been a push to engage young girls. Much of the focus has been on reaching students earlier.

That is a smart approach, according to Dr. Karen Olmstead, dean of Salisbury University’s Richard A. Henson School of Science and Technology.

“Everything tends to fall apart in middle school,” Olmstead said. “I think ultimately that’s where a lot of the efforts should be focused.”

It’s at the middle-school age, Olmstead says, when societal influences begin to take over. Young girls think it’s not “cool” to be smart or like science, math and technology.

“Then it’s a slippery slope,” she said. “They become less engaged.”

The Girl Scouts of Central Maryland offer a number of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs.

Tech Savvy Girls is a workshop series where girls create video games, learn to code and design websites. They also have a First Lego League robotics team, which offers participants the opportunity to learn how to program robots and create solutions to problems posed during team building exercises. In addition to programs and workshops, the group recently hosted their inaugural STEAM festival on Nov. 14 where Girl Scouts could explore career options.

“(STEM is) emerging as the new frontier for girls and women,” said Danita Terry, GSCM’s director of communications and media relations. “The world is getting more technically advanced and if children, specifically girls in our case, learn more about STEM, become more familiar with it and more competent in it, it will keep them on pace in both the work world and the research world.”In October, the Abington Library hosted a computer coding workshop for middle school-aged girls called Craft the Code.

“We wanted to do coding for girls because we think it’s a population that we could support, nurture a little bit and make it fun for them,” said Mary Hastler, Harford County Public Library CEO. “We know, if we make it fun for them, we keep their interest.”

An initiative by HCPL and the Harford County Office of Information and Communication Technology, the workshop filled up a day and a half after registration opened. The girls used Google’s CS First Fashion & Design program for the workshop.

“They seemed to be really engaged in what they were learning and designing their fashions,” Hastler said.

She said the subject was a good way to show how coding can make a difference in an economy, a product or a business.

“Not only did they learn new skills but, also, when they could take the product that they were using and build on it when they left” offered a great learning experience.

The Girls Empowerment Mission program has helped engage students in STEM careers through visits to the Maryland Science Center, meeting with three Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. engineers and attending a STEM fair at Bryn Mawr School.

“I think that a lot of girls, in particular from low-income homes, don’t get encouraged to go into [STEM] fields,” said Debbi Weinberg, group founder. “We open up [the girls’] eyes to everything from art to science and everywhere in between. We want the girls to realize they can do anything that interests them.”

Next school year, high school students in the state will be able to take an Advanced Placement class in computer science. One of the people who worked to establish this class is University of Maryland, Baltimore County computer science professor Dr. Marie desJardins. With such low numbers for women and minorities in the field, she wanted to establish a class for students and instruct teachers through a program called CS4HS to help them make computing more appealing to all different kinds of students.

“A diverse team working on engineering problems produce better, more robust solutions than more heterogeneous teams,” desJardins said.

A great example is the adult male crash test dummies used solely for years while testing vehicle safety. Many women and children were injured or killed because the dummies only tested impacts on adult male bodies —  not ones with smaller, different frames.

“I can guarantee you that if there had been women on the engineering team in equal numbers, they would have thought of the fact that their crash test dummies were not diverse,” she said.

This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Path To Excellence: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Path to Excellence magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Path to Excellence.