In the Lego lab, where the girls built yellow-mouthed robot alligators, using motors and cables and motion-sensors to snap the jaws onto any little Lego man that wandered past, Cassandra Reese talked about her dream job.
She wants to be a marine biologist. She wants to swim with dolphins and net starfish and save the coral reefs, which support a quarter of all marine life.
She will need math to do that. Science, too. Those subjects become more difficult in junior high, and girls who fall behind are quickly steered to different disciplines. They seldom come back: Just 24 percent of the scientists and engineers working today are women, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Cassandra, who is entering seventh grade, sees no reason she can’t join them.
“A lot of people underestimate girls,” she said. “But the way I see it, if you put your mind to it, you can do anything.”
This week, she built a robot alligator. She designed a storefront. She wired a circuit board, reconfigured an assembly line and toured a GE locomotive. She met some of the women who helped design and build it.
That interaction was a key element of “GE Girls @ Penn State,” a weeklong science, technology, engineering and math camp at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. Cassandra was one of 24 girls in the program – one of just eight in the nation. She was paired with a female GE intern, who talked with her about technology work and the subjects she’d need to study in high school and college. Other women – GE engineers and faculty members from Penn State Behrend – led the classroom and lab sessions.
“We want them to see that you can have a career and a family,” said Anne Eisert, manager of global product definition at GE Transportation. “You really can do both.”
The girls learned about packaging, logistics and photoelasticity. They experimented with computer-aided design, using Autodesk software, and developed their own custom lip gloss, mixing avocado oil with mango butter and melted beeswax.
“It might look like glitter and shimmer and sparkle,” Alicyn Rhoades, assistant professor of engineering, said, opening a vial of cotton candy fragrance. “But this, my friends, is science.”
The lip gloss project, like much of the GE Girls program, was designed to show the girls how much science and math impacts their everyday lives.
“My hope is that by the end of the week, they are looking around at the world – at that chair they’re sitting in, or the pen they are writing with – and can see the engineering that went into it,” said Melanie Ford, lecturer in computer science and software engineering and head of the Engineering K-12 Outreach Center at Penn State Behrend. “If they see that, and they see that women are involved at every step in the process, maybe they won’t lose interest.”