Education

Girls in Engineering, Math & Science introduces big concepts to young minds

UK student Sarah Smith, standing, reacted as Andreya Smith, second from left, and Harley Fultz described their group's model city during the 10th annual Girls in Engineering, Math and Science event at the University of Kentucky. The Girl Scouts built their models using materials like cotton balls and flat marbles.
UK student Sarah Smith, standing, reacted as Andreya Smith, second from left, and Harley Fultz described their group's model city during the 10th annual Girls in Engineering, Math and Science event at the University of Kentucky. The Girl Scouts built their models using materials like cotton balls and flat marbles. Herald-Leader

Most days, middle school Girl Scouts don't build their own model cities and figure out how to power the place and feed and house its people.

Vicki Cooper, a staff assistant at the University of Kentucky College of Engineering, thought the lack of regular information about such opportunities was unfortunate. As a Girl Scout leader a decade ago, she came into contact with lots of girls who needed career exposure in disciplines such as math, science and engineering — and in her job, she found lots of people who could provide it.

So Cooper helped create the Girls in Engineering, Math and Science annual event at the University of Kentucky, held Saturday on UK's campus.

Cooper said the event started small — a couple of engineering classrooms and professors to work with about 30 girls the first year — but has blossomed to draw 350 Girl Scouts a year from Central and Eastern Kentucky and sometimes even southern Ohio.

"It opens their eyes to see what's going on in the world," she said. "We're hoping that it will encourage them to do advanced math and science in high school."

On Saturday, Scouts attended a series of hands-on activities with engineering faculty members and students. The events included workshops on circuit boards and a "physics petting zoo."

Among the seminars was an introduction to some of the principles involved in city planning. Four groups of middle school students were coached by engineering professor Bruce Walcott to use unconventional materials such as tiny colored cups, cotton balls and flat marbles to create a future city.

Walcott said he has worked in school outreach for 20 years.

The girls are soon going to be making decisions during their high school years about how much to challenge themselves in advanced math and science classes, he said. To be with the "cool kids" in college, he said, high school students had to take their vegetables — the more challenging courses that give them more options in college. Walcott said those included "calculus cauliflower" and "physics peas."

The 13 girls divided into four teams to create their "cities," which then had to be pitched to judges.

As the girls worked, Walcott moved around the room murmuring encouragement. "We need more young ladies to go into engineering," he announced at one point. Closer to the end of the process, when the girls would have to explain how their cities would function, he said, "I assume you are multitasking. Engineers are good multitaskters."

Some went for whimsy: "Chickentown" in 2050 Hawaii featured lava and "home-grown chicken nuggets." Another was more analytical: "Radical Town" in 2020 Sweden featured "wireless" power and anelaborate water purification system. "My Old Kentucky Home" envisions Morehead in the year 3000 as being heavy on solar panels. And there may be good fishing in "Minnow-Sota,"

Chris Smith of Breathitt County brought his 12-year-old daughter, Andreya Smith, to the program for her fourth year of participation. Andreya wants to be either a special effects technician for movies or a crime scene investigator, she said.

Her dad has another science-related job goal for her, one that may keep her closer to home: He'd like Andreya to consider becoming a pharmacist.

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