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‘WizGirls’ ignites students’ STEM interest

By Kris DiLorenzo
TIM LAMORTE/RIVERTOWNS ENTERPRISE

Nine-year-old Georgia Smith, 10-year-old Ellie Moss, and 10-year-old Liana Cabezas, all from Ardsley, construct a cardboard apartment building.

 

Most middle school girls don’t spend their Saturdays learning to operate rolling drone bots, create computer video games, perform virtual knee and hip replacements, and design cars. But on Oct. 29, upwards of 200 did.

At Ardsley Middle School, girls from Westchester and New York City came together for a five-and-a-half-hour event, “WizGirls,” sponsored by the Westchester Chapter of the AAUW (American Association of University Women), designed to engage them in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

“There are not many programs for little girls doing hands-on things in engineering,” observed event director Sheila Narayanan, an engineer trained at the University of Wales, who has worked on designing aircraft engines in Wales and the U.S. Her daughter, Tara Venkatadri, is a junior at Ardsley High School.

The girls had a variety of opportunities to get their hands on unique projects in the morning workshops. In addition to the bots and video games, fourth- and fifth-graders had a choice of making soda, detecting noxious chemicals, creating LED jewelry, designing a robot that draws, building a solar cooker, modeling a city, and voicing a cartoon. At the same time, sixth- and seventh-graders were performing surgeries, learning about elastic energy, using levers, programming animated characters, and building bridges.

The afternoon activity for all the girls was a creative, collaborative exercise in designing and constructing mini cars out of plastic straws, tongue depressors, yarn, rubber bands, index cards, Life Savers, and hair beads, using scissors and masking tape.

One section of fourth- and fifth-graders, divided into five, three-member teams, was supervised by Cynthia Plater, a retired computer technician who lives in Croton.

Plater, who was among the event’s nearly 90 volunteers, emphasized the importance of educating girls about STEM subjects, and pointed out that their interest seems to wane “between grade school and eighth grade. There's a disconnect," she explained. “We start losing them in eighth grade. We need to get the conversation going, keep them motivated. There needs to be a bridge.” Plater knows how vital it is to be science-minded. “We’re getting them ready for this century, getting them ready for jobs.”

WizGirls dovetails with the “Lead the Way” program, a national STEM initiative that the Ardsley School District introduced this semester. At the middle school, technology teacher David Ponterio is teaching 10-week classes in design and modeling, and automation and robotics. At Concord Road Elementary, Fran Zuchetto and Esther Feldbaum are teaching engineering by examining how energy is created by forces in collision; that material is integrated into the curriculum.

In Plater’s afternoon session, the girls named their teams S.L.T., Linuca, NCE, League of Unicorns, and Rainbow Rock Stars, before spending a half hour devising ways to combine their materials into a vehicle, and checking to see whether it operated properly. “Make sure the wheels actually stay on,” Plater advised. When the cars were completed, the girls tested them, sending them down a plywood ramp and measuring the distance they traveled. After three runs, team NCE had won, with a distance of 127 inches. It was the only car that had a cab on top, built with index cards stuck together, and an axle that allowed the Life Saver wheels to move easily.

Cassandra Wilson, a fourth-grader at St. Francis of Assisi School in the Bronx, explained why her team’s car had won: “Our wheels were looser, and the paper was light, so it just went right by.”

Teammate Nicolette Viggiani, an Ardsley fifth-grader, said of her car engineering experience, “Trying to make it was kind of hard and at the same time it was kind of fun.”

Zucchetto, who has taught science for 27 years, 18 of them at Concord Road, played several roles in the WizGirls event, providing the lesson plan for the afternoon engineering activity, reviewing the plan with the volunteers, and addressing all the girls at the start of the afternoon session, giving them some background on automotive aerodynamics.

“It’s amazing, that sense of achievement with the cars,” she said. “It’s challenging; it doesn’t matter what age group. I was so impressed with girls who tried different sets of wheels until they got one that was the fastest." She added, "It’s nice to know that they understand it’s OK to make a mistake and fix it.”

“The morning workshops give the girls a tiny window into possibilities,” Narayanan said. “They don’t know what engineering and technology is about, how basic it is. Everything’s engineered, from the chair you sit on to your iPhone and the bridge you’re driving on.”

She shared some of the reasons for the disparity between girls' and boys' performance in the STEM subjects, and speculated as to why girls are inclined to lose interest in them after middle school.

“There are many implicit biases, for example, toys for boys," Narayanan said. "Boys are oriented toward tinkering; they’re used to doing things hands-on: making them and breaking them and making them again. Girls are not great at failure; we teach our girls to be perfect, and not to fail and try again."

Girls, she added, "also may have the impression that science is nerdy. They start to eliminate themselves without really knowing much about it. Then they get intimidated, and when they get into activities in a group of boys and girls doing something together, some girls let boys take over. Some girls don’t feel confident enough."

Summarizing what could be considered the "WizGirls" credo, Narayanan said, "We need to instill confidence in girls that they’re competent. We’re opening girls’ eyes and giving them the knowledge, confidence, and role models.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


 

November 4, 2016

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