Paige Anderson, 13, huddled around a desktop fan with a group of girls and anxiously waited to see if the wind turbine blades they designed and built out of cardboard would successfully rotate.
When a General Electric volunteer turned on the fan, Anderson beamed — it worked.
“I never really thought I was into science and engineering,” she said. “I wasn’t as into it as I am now. In science, we do a lot of packet work and stuff. This is more hands-on, and this is more enjoyable for me.”
Anderson is one of 25 girls in the free GE Girls at Rensselaer summer program for rising eighth-grade girls from the Schenectady City School District.
The weeklong program began Monday and concludes today. Volunteers from GE and RPI instructors work with the girls to cover topics such as chemistry, construction, computer programming, designing and building a wind turbine and electronics by using hands-on projects and activities.
“I think it is important that we take some steps to show girls that there really are not any boundaries for them,” Schenectady schools Superintendent Laurence Spring said. “Science is something that they can do, science is something they can be great at.”
The goal of the program is to inspire the girls to pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and math, collectively referred to as STEM. Anderson said the experience has changed her view on science.
“I think I will take it more seriously,” she said. “I just see how important it is now.”
The girls spent Thursday afternoon learning how to design wind turbines. When they were finished, they got to test their cardboard prototypes. After the project was completed, GE volunteers took the girls outside on the Schenectady campus, headquarters for GE’s Power & Water division, to see a real wind turbine blade.
“Each of the days focuses on a specific field,” said Chrissy Swanson, one of the GE volunteers. “All hands-on, they do very little lecture.”
The program is organized by the GE Women’s Network and funded by a $25,000 GE grant. It includes transportation, food and instruction for the girls at no cost.
GE Girls is a national program started by company Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt,
who felt it was important to close the gap between women and STEM. The program launched in 2011 on the MIT campus. In 2012, it began at RPI and will continue to expand to other colleges in the next few years.
Another part of the program is engaging the girls’ parents. Parents were invited to a ceremony and barbecue Thursday on the Schenectady GE campus to learn what the girls have been doing for the last week. The parents of Elizabeth Lewis, 13, were among those in attendance.
“I think it is great,” said Matthew Lewis, Elizabeth’s father. “It gets them excited about math and science.”
If anyone knows the importance of parents and educators encouraging young girls to pursue STEM, it is Swanson. When she was a young girl, her parents were told by a math teacher that she “will just never be able to do math and science,” she recalled. “ ‘She just does not have the aptitude for it.’ ”
Thankfully, Swanson’s parents disagreed and continued to encourage their daughter. She is now an engineer and a GE project manager, but she said if it wasn’t for her support system, she may have believed that discouraging teacher.
“Especially at this age, it has been shown that just one negative statement or a bad experience with science and math can change their perspective completely,” she said. “And then it can go the opposite way, as well.”
Swanson said it is important to encourage girls early on to pursue STEM careers.
“Engineering and science and math are fields that can really set them up for long-term success,” she said.
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