Girl power in full force at USF STEM summit

cnudi@bradenton.comMay 19, 2013 

MANATEE -- There were girls flying paper airplanes in the hallways, sending marbles down roller-coaster tracks they built and controlling a humongous robot while having fun all day Saturday.

This and a lot more was happening on the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus during its fourth annual Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics or STEM Summit for middle school girls.

"These types of events are critical for young girls," said Sunita Lodwig, who started the local event to show young girls all the opportunities available to them in the four fields that at one time were dominated by men.

"As young girls they have so many stereotypes in their heads," said Lodwig, a professor in the information and technology department of USF-SM, "(Here they see) this goes counter to those stereotypes."

She said today girls can

choose a career a variety of STEM fields, they just need to be encouraged.

At the summit, there were many role models to encourage the middle school students.

Susanna Packaushas, an industrial engineer with Raytheon in St. Petersburg, coached a roomful of purple T-shirt-clad young girls in the physics of how planes fly and then allowed them to fold their own paper airplane.

They then went out into the hallway to test their designs, tossing them one at a time to see which went the farthest.

Some made a short loop, and then a quick nose dive about two feet away, while others flew about 10 feet before landing, and a few sailed down the hall in nice straight lines.

But Packaushas, explained that all of them flew perfectly.

"Just because a plane didn't fly straight and far doesn't mean it's a failure," she said. "It depends on what job it was designed for."

The planes that made the loop could be a design for planes used for aerobatics, while the other two groups could be different designs for commuter or long-distance passenger planes.

In another classroom, excited young women were extracting DNA from strawberries.

Erin Martin, who coordinates the general education program and teaches biological sciences at USF-SM, had the girls crush strawberries in a plastic bag, then add salt, water and soap before pulling long strains of DNA from the test tubes.

"I thought this would be fun," said 11-year-old Claudia Hassler, who attends Epiphany Cathedral School in Venice. "I haven't decided what I want to do, but I like science. I think it's a lot of fun."

That was the message all of the workshops were trying to get across. STEM education and careers can be fun as well as fulfilling.

And fun was the very evident in Paula Wiggins' workshop.

Wiggins, the transportation planning manager for Sarasota County, had the middle schoolers form teams and build roller coasters out of flexible half-tubes and masking tape.

Within a few minutes the coasters were taped to walls, tables, chairs and the floor, twisting, turning and looping across the room.

After they demonstrated their designs with a marble, Wiggins, a civil engineer, had the girls explain their thinking process in the designing and construction of the project.

These were some of the more than 24 workshops the students could attend, including labs on nutrition, health, medicine, marine biology, mathematics and physics.

All of the facilitators were role models for the girls, and one they could relate to was probably Laura O'Connell, a senior at Pine View High School in Sarasota.

O'Connell demonstrated a 100-pound robot with two of her teammates, Sho Szszepaniuk and Luke Cook-Griffin, that was entered in the Jungle Robotics World Championship competition.

Some participants got a chance to control the robot, making it twirl, slide sideways and travel backwards.

O'Connell, the captain of the team, said being involved in science does not mean you are less feminine.

"My advice is if you think it's cool and enjoy it, do it," she said, "no matter what another student says.

"Your passion will take you where you want to go," O'Connell said.

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