Girls ruled the school at Flathead Valley Community College Tuesday as they engaged in science, math, technology, engineering and medical workshops.
A record group of 404 seventh- and eighth-graders from 20 schools converged on the college campus for the annual Expanding Your Horizons program.
The purpose of Expanding Your Horizons is to encourage and motivate young girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects through hands-on workshops led by volunteers with professional experience.
Some of the girls launched bottle rockets under the guidance of Alison Godfrey, a retired engineer for Lockheed Martin.
“I was a technical lead for some of the Lockheed Martin target launches, so we built rockets for basically our military’s target practice,” Godfrey said.
Prior to Lockheed Martin, Godfrey started her engineering career for Raytheon in 1983.
“I was working for Raytheon. They do government projects for ground-based missile systems, radar and such. It was just as much fun as you can have. It was a blast,” Godfrey said.
Right out of college, she was one of a few women in her line of work, but said there are more today, according to Godfrey.
On Tuesday she taught students about the variety of engineering jobs.
“Today I’m showing them that I’ve got system engineers, rocket engineers, ground-support engineers — who build the launch pads — just for this one mission,” Godfrey said.
Kalispell Middle School seventh-grader Hollee Norton pumped air into water contained in the bottle rocket before counting down, “three, two, one.” Norton’s partner, Browning Middle School eighth-grader Leslie Schildt, yanked a rope and the rocket was thrust into the air. Each group designed “fins” on the side of the rockets to steer the rockets. Norton said the point is to space the fins equally for air flow.
Volunteer presenter Kendra Kuhl, a 2000 Flathead High School graduate, made a special flight from California to lead a workshop on energy transformation.
“You can certainly go all the way in science and there’s nothing stopping you coming from the Flathead Valley,” Kuhl said.
Kuhl recently finished doing applied research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and is co-founding a start-up to recycle carbon dioxide. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana she earned a doctorate in chemistry at Stanford University.
“I was always interested in STEM. My dad was interested in math. He would bring little math problems home that we’d work on together,” Kuhl said. “I took organic chemistry as a junior in high school and I really liked that a lot.”
Kuhl said Expanding Your Horizons is a great way to get like-minded girls together to talk about STEM.
“I feel the things girls are encouraged to talk about with their friends aren’t always about computer programming and mechanical engineering, whereas boys maybe are just socially more exposed to those things, so getting girls as a group to talk about this is very cool,” she said.
Kuhl said for some girls, choosing STEM studies and careers takes encouragement from family, teachers and mentors in these professions.
“I think there’s a lot of research coming out. There is an unmistakable bias toward women and just getting girls involved at a younger age could help overcome some of the barriers they’ll run into later,” Kuhl said.
She believes gender bias is subtle rather than blatant — drawing from societal influences. She said breaking down general stereotypes about being a scientist is also important whether you’re male or female.
“Society has stereotypes about scientists or technical people that they’re all geniuses, that it comes easy to them, and if you’re not like that then you can’t be a scientist,” Kuhl said.
A lot of trial and error goes on that the general public doesn’t hear about.
“What you don’t see behind the scenes [is that] scientists are working really hard and studying,” Kuhl said. “Science takes lot of effort. It’s not all genius.”
Expanding Your Horizons was brought to the Flathead Valley in 1983 by the American Association of University Women and was taken over by Soroptimist International clubs about nine years ago. There were under 75 students then, said Diane Yarus, chairwoman of the Flathead Expanding Your Horizons committee and a member of Soroptimist International of Whitefish.
For workshop leader Jamie Reed everything has come full circle. As a junior high student, she participated in a land surveying workshop during Expanding Your Horizons. She is now a professional surveyor imparting her knowledge to students.
When she struggled to find a career path in college, Reed said she remembered taking the land surveying workshop.
“I realized FVCC has a great surveying program and went into that. It’s been 15 years now and I love it,” Reed said.
Nearby, Kalispell Middle School seventh-grader Natasha Gesker, Thompson Falls Junior High seventh-grader Kelsey Frank and Libby Middle School eighth-grader Aisha Brooks picked up land surveying tools — magnetic locators, a prism rod, map, pin flags and measuring tape — to locate nails put into the ground and measure the distance to a robotic station.
Frank oriented herself to a tree on the map where she held the measuring tape as Gesker and Brooks inserted two pin flags spaced horizontally apart in the ground. Brooks got the magnetic locator and honed in on an area between the flags where the nail was, while Brooks brushed the grass away to look for it. The trio decided to re-measure the distance between the flags and close the gap.
“Found it,” Frank said.
One of the students held a prism directly over the nail while Brooks ran to the robotic station where she zoomed in on the prism through a viewfinder.
“What she’s looking for is that prism, which is the top of that rod,” Reed said. “This instrument sends a laser out to the prism. It’s all mirrors, so it reflects it back and gives us a distance.”
Earlier in the day, the group of girls participated in workshops to explore other STEM fields. Gesker went to Wetland Wonders, where she identified species of plants and analyzed dirt by touch.
“It was awesome,” Gesker, who plans to study astrophysics, said with exuberance.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at email@example.com.