Robots crawled the floors and the sound of banging hammers filled the air Wednesday, March 15, as part of the Making a Difference – Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) conference at Iowa Lakes Community College.
More than 150 girls in seventh and eighth grade from five schools attended the event, in which local industry leaders teach hands-on class meant to engage students, showing them that STEM fields are approachable, accessible and socially acceptable for women.
“Today, I challenge you to keep an open mind,” said Mary Trent, northwest STEM regional manager, to the girls before they headed to classrooms for the first session of the day.
The event helps girls start thinking about how STEM fits into what they already like to do, allowing them to build interest from there and perhaps choose STEM classes when they reach high school, Trent said.
“It is so important because of the numbers of STEM jobs out there — and there’s so few women in these industries,” she added.
In the room with the “Robotics” sign, girls gathered in groups of two to three, holding tablet computers they used to control small, brightly-colored robots, some of which were made to look like the orange BB-8 droid from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” In “Paleontology,” girls learned about different types of fossils, and used tools to uncover “fossils” of their own. In “3D Printing and Applications,” girls handled 3D printed materials, learned how they are made and saw a model printed before their eyes, all with the help of Todd Woolston, who attended Iowa Lakes Community College.
“It’s fun! I like talking to the people and learning about all of it,” said Kristen Davis, 12, of Emmetsburg, who hopes to be a doctor in the future.
Other conference topics included virtual reality, nursing and emergency care, chocolate making and business ownership, and dietetics. The conference even included opportunities in art, including a session on photography; art is often added to STEM to create the acronym STEAM.
“We try to promote STEM opportunities for our young ladies,” said Rick Reinking, director of strategic partnerships/K-12 STEAM for Spirit Lake Community School District, who organized the event. “Research has shown that they don’t always get a fair shake in that area.”
Most of the teachers giving presentations at the conference were women, showing the students that women work in STEM in the real world, too.
Jessica Herman, 14, of Spencer, said she hoped to use what she learned in the photography seminar, including information about angles and techniques for creating images.
This year’s conference was the third, and student attendees came from Emmetsburg Community School District, Emmetsburg Catholic School, Spencer Community School District, Spirit Lake Community Schools, and Harris-Lake Park. Students from the Spirit Lake High School Key Club and staff from participating schools helped keep the event organized.
Jordan Smith, 14, of Harris, enjoyed learning about the animals in the college’s science room.
And she is interested in the possibility of a STEM career someday, Smith added.