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Flowers and STEMs

Two elementary school girls wrap rubber bands around Popsicle sticks in hopes of building a machine to launch marshmallows during the GEMS Night Out event on Friday, Nov. 20 in the Science, Math, and Technology Education building. // Photo by Randee Matthews
Two elementary school girls wrap rubber bands around Popsicle sticks in hopes of building a machine to launch marshmallows during the GEMS Night Out event on Friday, Nov. 20 in the Science, Math, and Technology Education building. // Photo by Randee Matthews

Rubber bands, tape, plastic spoons and Popsicle sticks: the materials for any potential future engineer, scientist and computer programmer. The objective? Build a machine to launch marshmallows.

The task might seem straightforward but the main goal behind it all certainly isn’t ­— bring more women into STEM fields. Western’s Youth Programs’ GEMS (girls in engineering, math and science) Night Out sought to do just that by starting them off early, teaching them that being an engineer or mathematician isn’t all-boys club.

On Friday, Nov. 20, elementary and middle school girls went running in through the double doors of Western’s Science, Math, and Technology Education building, eager to see what the GEMS Night Out had in store. 

Western’s Youth Program coordinator Juliet Holzknecht and program support assistant Olivia Shawen stood ready to greet them with the same excitement and wide eyes as the young girls themselves.

GEMS Night Out is a feminine empowering evening that takes place every three months. The event explores science, technology, education and math, also known as STEM, in hopes of motivating girls to pursue a job in these fields, according to the GEMS website.

The event is one of many GEMS Programs, which were created in the hopes of providing opportunities for girls to learn, find role models and meet others with similar interests, Holzknecht said.

Expanding the STEM workforce — and the amount of women in it — is crucial to increasing economic creativity and competitiveness, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In the U.S. workforce, women make up 47 percent of the total but are much less represented in science and engineering, according to the national girls collaborative project and the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Opening up these type of workshops and options for these girls gives them that first little push into finding out what they really are interested in,” Shawen said. 

The third to eighth grade girls were split into groups. Each group was given the same assignment: to build a machine that could throw a marshmallow toward a marked target.

Once the job was received, the girls were on their own to see what they could come up with, simulating the reality of an actual engineering challenge.

Marshmallow launch models of different designs quickly filled the tables as the girls worked hard together to build a machine before the time ran out, occasionally getting distracted by the tasty treats.

“It was really hard for the kids to not eat [the marshmallows],” said group leader and elementary education major, Morgan Estep.

Holzknecht, Shawen and others decided the lack of women in STEM fields was an issue they wanted to help address, so they set out to find a solution.

The event encourages a sense of empowerment and aspires to give strength to young girls to not be defined by the gender stereotypes of certain jobs, Shawen said.

Events like GEMS Night Out also provide an excellent opportunity for children like Maddy Drake, a home-schooled seventh grader, to socialize and work with other girls her age.

Drake said she aspires to be a doctor one day. Building the marshmallow launcher and completing other experiments allows her to feel capable of doing something on her own, Drake said.

“I like that in science you get to figure out things for yourself, instead of just knowing it,” Drake said.

The group starts accepting students who are in their third year of education due to the fact this is near the time when girls start to focus in on certain interests, Shawen said.

When girls go through the middle school years, they start to question if it’s feminine enough or the right topics for them, Holzknecht said.

A selection of Western women who are studying education were assigned to lead the girls in the marshmallow launching activity, and to also serve as positive roles for women who pursue a higher education, Holzknecht said.

“We have some awesome female instructors tonight, who are helping to model that science is a great space,” she said.

GEMS Night Out was crafted after the huge success of the GEMS Fair last May. The free event was open to anyone interested and ended up drawing in over 400 people, Shawen said.

On Feb. 26, the next GEMS Night Out, Ms will be held with astronomy as the theme, titled Ms. Mars. The night will have a lesson and activity geared toward studying the stars and planets, a time to snack and an hour of swimming at the Wade King Recreation Center, according to the GEMS website.

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