The impending wet weather on Saturday morning was not nearly enough to phase the full-blown participation I witnessed at Girlstart’s 10th annual Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Conference. Perhaps the patches of sunshine were coincidental symbols for what the Girlstart organization strives for: to illuminate the potential of our future problem-solvers, women and girls, who Girlstart says are typically discouraged from pursuing careers in STEM due to social bias or inequality.
Girlstart was founded by Rachel Muir in Austin, Texas in 1997. Powershift Group’s Chairman and CEO, Steve Papermaster, was an early supporter of Girlstart in helping to mobilize the initial investments at his 360 Summit event. This also helped spawn follow-up contributions.
Today, it is the only community-based informal STEM education nonprofit in the nation specifically devoted to empowering and training girls in STEM through year-round scholastic programs, such as the annual Girls in STEM Conference.
This year, the event kicked off at 8:30 AM at William B. Travis High School on Saturday, April 11, 2015. Over six hundred girls, grades 4 through 8, were in attendance. In addition, there were over a hundred volunteers, including professional women presenters with careers in STEM, and myself, a biomedical engineering junior at the University of Texas at Austin. Representing Powershift Group, I volunteered for a morning workshop, Code Red, which was assigned to me upon check-in. I am glad I arrived half an hour in advance because parking was extremely sparse and I was unfamiliar with the layout of the school. However, women wearing royal blue shirts displaying the Girlstart logo were everywhere, and were extremely helpful with navigation directions.
Code Red, my assigned volunteer workshop, was held in a typical high school science classroom. A myriad of posters were adhered to the walls, an overhead projector faced the front of the classroom, and black laminate laboratory desks were arranged in an interwoven fashion. Here, I met STEM presenter, Dr. Brook Randal, an emergency medicine doctor at the Neighbors Emergency Center in the Lakeline area of Austin, and Heather Quiroz, another volunteer.
Dr. Randal had Heather and I set up the room with stations of various medical equipment with corresponding instruction sheets, including blunt suture kits, stethoscopes, pupil gauges, and sterile gloves. The station Dr. Randal expressed she needed the most assistance with was the finger casting station. This particular interactive activity involved wrapping medical gauze around a girl’s finger, soaking a strip of wet-to-dry casting material in water, carefully wrapping it around the gauze, and smoothing out the cast’s pores to ensure proper hardening upon drying. Dr. Randal feared the station would become a sticky fiasco without the supervision and direction of two volunteers.
We finished setting up right on time for the arrival of the girls. They flooded in with their bright yellow Girlstart shirts and purple backpacks. As they took their seats, Dr. Randal began her presentation. She described her occupation to the girls, telling them what she did on a day-to-day basis and her favorite medical problems to fix. What I thought was especially useful was that she also communicated the education requirements needed to become a doctor; Girlstart not encourages young girls to get interested in STEM careers, but also actively shows them proper steps to get there.
After Dr. Randal’s presentation, the girls were organized into groups to rotate around the classroom for the different medical equipment stations. It was fun interacting with the girls and reliving what it was like to be in elementary school. While Heather and I were applying the casts, we jokingly asked each girl how she “broke her finger today” and were given a range of creative responses.
At the close of the workshop, the girls were given anonymous surveys to help provide feedback on the overall impact they experienced during the conference. Many wrote that they enjoyed the program because they learned about new STEM careers to pursue in the future. This response shows that Girlstart truly makes a difference in these young girls’ lives by increasing their confidence and interest in conducting STEM activities and helping them understand that there are multiple applications of STEM in everyday life.
My positive volunteer experience with Girlstart’s STEM conference has encouraged me to get involved with the organization’s future programs. I strongly believe in and support Girlstart’s cause to encourage curiosity and creativity among young girls to pursue STEM careers. With such influence at an early age, I am confident that these young women will become more successful and inspired to take on the world’s greatest challenges in science, technology, engineering, and math.
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