Girls making gains in male-dominated studies

eearl@bradenton.comMarch 10, 2013 

MANATEE -- Move over, St. Patrick's Day. This month is about creative and innovative female thinkers.

March is Expanding Girls' Horizons in Science and Engineering Month, dedicated to encouraging girls with an aptitude in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The idea was created by the Expanding Your Horizons Network, a nonprofit organization based in California that encourages young women to pursue STEM careers, which tend to be male-dominated.

Richard Platt, the technology and engineering teacher, and TSA advisor at Southeast High School, said that Southeast recently added an all-girls' robotics team.

Just like the coed robotics teams, the girls compete in programming robots to do tasks like sorting and stacking bean bags.

Platt said the hands-on experience helps students accomplish their in-class work with enthusiasm.

"Teachers need to be fired up and share a vision with their students," Platt said.

Students in Platt's 3-D engineering class work with programs such as SolidWorks, a design software, and CAMWorks, an engineering software, to design products such as guitars, jewelry boxes and toy cars.

Southeast also has a ma

chine that reads the students' computer creations and mills out their designs. The high-tech manufacturing tool is almost identical to ones found in engineering facilities worldwide.

Dani Burton, a junior at Southeast High School, said that she gets fulfillment from seeing the products she designs on a computer become tangible things.

"Some girls think it is out of their league, but once you start, it gets easier after a while," Burton said.

Tracy Harwood, a math teacher at Braden River High School, said she recommended more females than males into AP calculus last year, and her female students are active in technology competitions and science fairs.

"I think girls here are highly encouraged," Harwood said. "There is no stigma regarding engineering and technology clubs, and competitors are highly regarded."

Harwood said she believes community involvement is a key to success.

Sun Hydraulics, a company that designs and manufactures screw-in hydraulic cartridge valves for controlling speed and motion in fluid power systems, has partnered with Braden River and other schools in Manatee and Sarasota counties for the past 10 years.

They offer tours of their facilities in Sarasota to show how math and engineering apply to manufacturing, and employees visit schools to give advice about technology and engineering careers. Sun Hydraulics has also donated parts for students to experiment with in their engineering classes and robotics clubs.

Harwood said that she does see reasons that girls might hold back in chasing a career in STEM.

"Some young women hold back out of fear of an intense career, as they want to raise a family. Other students might not have a broad outlook on their future yet and cannot clearly see where they want to be between five and 10 years from now," Harwood said. "Their dream is not yet solidified."

When Harwood sees potential in students, she opens their eyes to the variety of opportunities available.

"Math and science skills are required for many jobs," Harwood said. "For example, many students are interested in video game designing and that requires technology skills as well as high levels of math."

Manatee County schools offer diverse STEM classes that may peak student's interest beyond basic biology, such as medical language, zoology and forensic science.

Gillian Pullino, a junior at Southeast, hopes to pursue a career in engineering, and she feels strongly about girls following through on their dreams.

"Girls tend to be looked at as readers, but those gender roles are fading, and I think we can take STEM careers by storm," she said.

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