Measuring the velocity of a roller coaster, marking out hot-rod flames on sheet metal and molding plastic products, 27 girls from 10 high schools in Pennsylvania recently spent four days at Pennsylvania College of Technology, learning about careers they might never have considered - or even heard of - prior to their experience at the college's SMART Girls summer camp.
"I thought I knew what my future career would be, but being here got me interested in other careers," said one of the participants in an anonymous post-event survey.
SMART Girls - an acronym for Science and Math Applications in Real World Technologies - has been an initiative of the college since 2001, when the college decided to take a proactive role in trying to reverse the dearth of women in many science, technology, engineering and math-related careers.
Participants in SMART Girls at Pennsylvania College of Technology prepare to explore a retired FedEx Boeing 727 now used for instructional purposes at the college’s Lumley Aviation Center.
The program - which offers one-day events for middle school and high school girls in the fall and spring along with a four-day camp for ninth- and 10th-grade girls in mid-July - provides girls hands-on experiences and field trips that expose them to rewarding careers often not considered by women.
Activities make apparent the relationship those careers have with math and science skills, encouraging girls to continue taking rigorous math and science courses at an age when, studies show, many girls lose interest or confidence in those subjects (despite having equal or superior ability).
"Encouraging women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics serves two purposes: From a national perspective, increasing the number of women in STEM careers builds a greater workforce (in numbers and talent) to compete globally," said Elizabeth A. Biddle, K-12 project manager in Penn College's Outreach for K-12 Office. "From a societal perspective, women tend to choose lower-skill, lower-wage careers and more often limit themselves financially. Young women engaged in STEM career activities have a greater chance to pursue fulfilling careers that provide family-sustaining wages."
This year, the girls explored "A Hope Chest of Careers Never Imagined." During the course of their "camp" experience, they filled their career hope chests with items they made in the workshops, as well as documents related to their experiences. Each workshop was followed by a culminating activity designed to get the girls thinking about what they saw, how it related to who they are and what it meant for them as a potential career.
During hands-on workshops in Penn College's modern laboratories, girls learned about such topics as biometrics, plastics, clean energy, aviation technology, automotive restoration, automated manufacturing and computer-aided product design.
The girls also took an evening excursion on the Susquehanna River aboard the Hiawatha Paddlewheel Riverboat, during which they took a look at the boat's diesel engine, and they spent a morning at Knoebels Amusement Resort, where they learned about the physics of roller coasters and the related topic of data analysis.
The camp featured a morning with women from the natural gas industry. Anadarko employees Alex Sneed, Autumn Bullock and Victoria Marques discussed what it's like to work in the natural gas industry and why they chose their particular career paths in oil and natural gas.
In addition, the girls received letters from Penn College alumnae (working in fields that are nontraditional for women) that encouraged the girls to explore career options and discussed the joys and challenges of working in fields that are dominated by men.
SMART Girls is funded by the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act. Partial support for this work was provided by the National Science Foundation, by the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program from the Department of Community and Economic Development and by Pennsylvania College of Technology.
SMART Girls is coordinated by the college's Outreach for K-12 Office. The curriculum for the camp was developed by Christina Herman and Alice Justice.