BY ANDREW MOORE
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
A drum line performance from the Roosevelt High School Rough Rider band kicked off the seventh annual Girls Inc. of San Antonio Science Festival Saturday at the San Antonio headquarters of Rackspace Hosting.
“There’s a huge lack of women in STEM,” Says Girls Inc. CEO Rhonda Williamson. “Women are half of the workforce, but less than a quarter of science, technology, engineering and math fields, and less than a quarter of computer engineers.”
The nonprofit organization combats the stereotype that math and science are “guy” fields. They do this by creating girl-only environments where there is less social pressure on girls to conform. Williamson says girls are more hesitant to stand out by asking questions or taking the lead on projects when in a mixed gender group.
“When it’s an all girls environment, they are more open towards taking those risks,” says Williamson.
Founded in 2004, Girls Inc. of San Antonio holds STEM camps and does events for local schools. It also sponsors two FFL Robotics teams – team Smart and team Bold. The organization has served around 3,000 young women in the last year, providing both education and a safe haven with hot meals. They also provide scholarships. Williamson hopes to get even more girls interested in the organization by holding science festivals.
“I hope that something inspires them,” says Williamson. “And that’s why they say ‘I want to be this when I grow up, I want to design the next open cloud system for Rackspace, or I want to make a rocket.’”
H. W. Schulze Elementary Teacher Alice Pearish sees Girls Inc. events as extremely important to getting students interested in STEM fields. She hopes to get the non-profit more involved in her school.
“A lot of girls are really good at math also but they hold back from joining those kinds of fields,” said Pearish. “We want them to be engineers and to think higher level.”
Plenty of activities offered the kids hands on opportunities with science experiments and more. Boeing San Antonio, which bankrolled much of the event’s cost, had several activities related to aerospace engineering. Carts demonstrated friction, air guns simulated jet engine propulsion, and three dimensional puzzles provided challenges for critical thinking and motor skills.
Rackspace Hosting, which has hosted the Girls Inc. Science Festival at their San Antonio location for the last three years, set up a series of demonstrations that showed how electricity and circuits work. Kids could play Tetris by touching buttons made out of Play-doh, or play a digital piano by touching bananas hooked up to a laptop.
“We all know there is a big gap in the number of women and girls going into technology, and we want to do our part to show girls that technology is for them,” said Rackspace Community Affairs Specialist Cristina Ruiz. “This a good chance for us to talk to and reach a lot of girls.”
Rackspace was the title sponsor for the event. They contributed volunteer hours and funding for the festival as well as a location.
Sponsor USAA had about 13 different activities at the festival – from engineering buildings with pipe cleaners to building air-powered Rockets to doing chemistry experiments. Around 90 employees volunteered to run the many booths and activities. USAA Bank Systems Executive Director Terry Woodworth says the USAA contribution has doubled since last year. She is excited to be able to connect so many kids with technology.
“When you see their faces, and when you see them use some of these experiments and find out that there is mathematics and engineering behind it, they’re astonished,” says Woodworth. “So if we can just plant a seed with them.. ..we are all going to benefit from that one day.”
Roosevelt High School had several different booths at the event. Its Disco-Inferno robotics team brought the robot they used to compete in the Alamo-First Competition. Kids had the opportunity to control the team’s large Frisbee-launching robot as well as a few small maneuverable bots. The school was also represented by their all-girl Team Eclipse Rocketry Club. Freshman Isabella Leighton, who does the math and statistics for the club, has been interested in math since she discovered she could keep up with it in the fourth grade.
“Since we’re an all girls team, and no one expects us to be able to do all these things, it makes me feel really proud when we achieve what we have achieved,” says Leighton.
Some additional sponsors included UTSA’s CEIG program which promoted microbiology by showing kids slides of benign bacteria, and Valero which taught kids how many common household items were manufactured with petroleum. In one of the more messy experiments, the Witte Museum had a booth showing off magnetic silly putty – a black blob of putty that actively reached for and eventually engulfed a magnet.
Also participating were the San Antonio Astronomical Association, NASA, KLRN, Time Warner Cable, Toyota Texas, and HEB.
At the Festival’s conclusion, 2800 participants had entered the Rackspace parking lot to learn about STEM careers — and 979 of them were girls under 18 years of age.
Regan Shelton, who brought her daughter and extended family to the event for the fourth year, gives Girls Inc. of San Antonio all the credit for getting her daughter interested in technology.
“I can honestly say this is what’s gotten her and them into science — and technology especially,” said Shelton. “Last year I remember her telling me she didn’t know that women could be into technology and electronics.”
Correction: This article originally mistakenly referred to STEM as STEAM.