iCan helps young girls believe

iCan helps young girls believe

Add together motivated students, proud parents and inspiring speakers. What do you get?

A bright future.

That was the equation solved at the annual Girls in Engineering Conference held Saturday, March 21 at the Alabama Power Corporate Headquarters in Birmingham.

Over a hundred young girls from grades six through eight attended with their parents to learn how engineering the future can be fulfilling, rewarding and – yes – even cool.

The daylong event, hosted by iCan Girls in Engineering, was sponsored by Alabama Power and Girls Inc. of Central Alabama. The conference was free. But the memories were invaluable.

“We have so many talented young people in Alabama,” said Alabama Power’s Bobbie Knight, vice president of the Birmingham division. “We want them to know we support them and that nothing can stop them from achieving their dreams.”

The girls participated in fun, team-building engineering exercises while their parents heard from professional engineers and others about how to guide them toward a career in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM).

“It’s great exposure,” said Steve Ruffner, whose daughter Haley is a sixth-grader at Oak Mountain Middle School. “The girls don’t realize how much in demand they are for the engineering field. It’s actually cool to be math and science majors.”

“She said, ‘Mom, sign us up,’” said Rebecca Staples of her daughter Grace, who attends Ashville Middle School. “She didn’t care if anybody else came, she wanted to do this no matter what.”

The exercises included building a flashlight from scratch and engineering a sturdy bridge made out of drinking straws. The students worked in groups, trouble-shooting and problem-solving together. Engineers from Alabama Power answered questions and supervised.

“I got a text, Kayla said, ‘I made a new friend.’ I went yay!” said mom Kristin Simpson.

“My daughter hasn’t even texted me, so that means she’s very busy,” said Rebecca Staples with a laugh.

Parents learned new things, too.

The speakers talked about keeping the girls motivated by guiding them but not making their decisions for them. They also addressed the importance of social skills, which drew a buzz of recognition from the audience.

“Your child can know it all,” said Dr. Veronique Zimmerman-Brown, project director for GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs). “But if he or she does not know how to project that, how to interact with people, how to use those social skills, no one will ever know how much they know.”

One critical factor is confidence. Studies show that many young girls drift away from the STEM subjects as they get older. Some are discouraged by peer pressure, leading to self-doubt.

“I have a 10th-grader, and she came home one day and said, ‘I’m really upset about my math test. I don’t think I did well,’” said Dr. Connie Hill, president and CEO of Girls Inc., noting that her answers didn’t match those of her classmates. “Two days later she said, ‘I made 100 percent on my math test.’

“So she didn’t lack knowledge, she lacked confidence,” Hill continued. “We want to make sure that the girls at this conference understand that when they see things differently, they may be seeing them as they really are.”

Representatives from Alabama colleges and universities were also on hand, including the University of Alabama, Auburn University, Alabama A&M University, UAB and Tuskegee University.

“I thought it went really well,” said Chloe McMahon, a mechanical engineering major at the University of Alabama. She cited “the sheer amount of parents, their involvement and all the questions.”

That enthusiasm was clearly on display.

“Awesome, very interesting and very informational,” said Bridget Huston-Thomas, a first-time attendee with her daughter Breia. “They gave me a lot of great information and resources.”

“She sent me a text and said she enjoyed it,” said Maria Quintero of her daughter Maria Jaramillo.

“Grace said, ‘I can’t believe they’re doing all of this for free for us,’” said Rebecca Staples.

The iCan Girls in Engineering Conference is not only about engineering the future. It’s also about building the community. The students, some from low-income neighborhoods, were encouraged to see themselves as success stories, not statistics.

“You’ve got the professionals that are actually putting what they’ve learned into action, and then on top of that they give back to the community,” said Ron Bradberry, father of Anaya, a sixth-grader. “It all comes full circle.”

Nichole York, who came with her daughter Cydney, spoke for many.

“This is very, very important for our girls,” she said. “We will be participating in the future.”

This post was originally published on Alabama NewsCenter.