By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Michael Petrone’s students at Iroquois Middle School are good at solving problems in the STEM field. As a tech teacher, he witnesses boys and girls alike solving problems, building inventions and confidently creating.
“They’ve got talent; there’s no question,” Petrone said of the students that leave his technology classroom.
“But as soon as they walk out the door, things change.”
Jackie Carrese, K-12 director of science in the Niskayuna Central School District, also observed the troubling shift.
In high school, girls who had previously excelled would step back from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes, allowing their male classmates to take the lead.
A persuasive 2010 report entitled “Why So Few?” inspired Carrese. After reading it, she felt she understood several key reasons why girls lost interest in STEM.
“The big attractor for females is they’ve got to see how it is useful in society,” she said. “We’re trying to grab their attention; spark their interest.”
Three years ago, spurred by the hundred-page report, Carrese started the Niskayuna Engineering Institute for Young Women. The Institute consists of a five-day camp that culminates in a visit to GE. Its mission is to encourage girls entering grades seven through nine to explore potential STEM careers while helping them understand the positive impact those careers could have on the world.
Each day of the camp focuses on take-home projects, like a hydraulic robot arm, a lamp made from an upcycled empty soda bottle, and a solar-powered cellphone charger.
But the focus goes beyond the projects themselves. Petrone, one of the instructors for the Institute, repeated an encouraging phrase that he said inspired him to explore engineering and technology when he was 13 years old.
“Remember, if someone put something together, we’re smart enough to figure out how to get it apart,” he told his all-female audience.
“There’s no reason why, even though we’re not electricians and engineers yet, you can’t take it apart and put it back together.”
Of course, he offered safety counseling as well. But the message was clear to the young women at the camp: They should feel confident enough to apply what they learned there to other situations and explore their problem-solving talents.
The young engineers, doctors, and scientists-in-training said the girls-only policy truly did enhance their experience at the Institute.
Aarushi Fernandez, 11, went to a different engineering camp last summer. “There were more boys than girls,” she said. Sometimes that meant she didn’t get the hands-on experience she loves.
“There were a limited number of kits, and the boys got them first,” she said. But she didn’t harbor any resentment — she planned to take what she learned during the Institute and teach it to her 6-year-old brother.
This is just as Carrese intended it when she implemented her idea for the Institute three years ago. “When they’re with a group of their peers, there’s no gender competition,” she said.
As Eleanor Dhenall and Medha Bulumulla, both 12, worked on their lamps together, they considered whether leaving out the boys for a week improved their camp experience.
“If you have all girls, it focuses more on [the idea] that women can go into engineering,” Dhenall said. She hoped the projects and experiments throughout the week would help her choose high school classes someday soon.
Bulumulla agreed. “You don’t feel left out,” she said. “It helps you think about your future.”