Written by Jaklen Keshishyan, CSU STEM VISTA Member 2014-15
For the last five months I have been visiting Fremont Academy of Engineering and Design, a learning community of grades 7 – 12 that provides real connections and applications for the concepts that the students are learning. While here, I have been working with the Femineers, a group of bright, high school girls that hope to pursue careers in STEM fields. At each visit I would try to engage them with engineering activities, industry visits, personal and professional developmental tools, and much more. Each month I would walk away from these meetings brainstorming new and exciting ways to build a stronger foundation for the Femineers.
A week ago, the Femineers and I had the opportunity to go on an expedition to Lake Arrowhead for three days. On this trip the Femineers worked on wearable technology. They also worked on something much greater: building community. The Femineers were placed in groups, and each group was responsible for preparing a meal during the trip. In order to prepare a meal, the Femineers had to assign each team member to a specific task that they must complete, very much like how any engineering group would designate roles for a project. On the second night of our trip a group of Femineers made burgers and fries for all. After dinner all Femineers were asked to get into groups and participate in a marshmallow challenge, an activity I planned for them. Working in their meal preparation groups, the Femineers had 18 minutes to complete this activity, which consisted of building a free standing structure with pasta and placing a marshmallow on top. The group with the tallest structure would be named the winner. As I went about measuring each structure, it was fascinating to realize that the group that had just made dinner was the group that engineered the tallest structure. It was at this point that I realized the importance of teamwork in engineering and the importance of community with the Femineers.
It is vital to have concrete engineering education provided. However, it also vital to build a strong community amongst the cohort of students within the program. The expedition to Lake Arrowhead enabled the girls to change their perceptions of engineering. According to research, one of the many reasons that females do not enter STEM fields is due to the lack of female mentors within these fields. By building a community, the Femineers became mentors for one another. This sense of community also opened doors for collaboration. For instance, on the first day of the trip many of the girls kept their distance from one another and worked on their wearable technology projects alone. By the last day of the expedition, the Femineers were teaching one another how to code for their wearable technology and sharing best methods and techniques. This opportunity to collaborate resulted in spectacular projects.
Lev Vygotsky, a developmental psychologist, proposed a theory of higher cognitive function development where he noted that children acquire information at higher levels when placed in a social environment. Vygotsky’s theory was put into action during the expedition and it truly did present optimal results. The Femineers became better engineers due to the social development aspect of the trip.
Recognizing the impact that the Femineers are making, Project Lead The Way, the nation’s leading provider of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs, asked to document the Femineer expedition to Lake Arrowhead. Having the film crew document the trip generated a level of excitement amongst the Femineers that I had not yet experienced. The documentary focused on the significance of having females take part within STEM fields. Many of the students were interviewed and were asked to elaborate on their journey as an engineer. It was humbling to see how the Femineers welcomed the film crew into their space and allowed their journey to be documented in hopes that others would in the future experience similar opportunities. The PLTW documentary will be previewed at the Project Lead The Way Conference in Sacramento (February 19-20, 2015) and will be made available for public viewing during Engineering Week (February 22 – 28, 2015).
The expedition to Lake Arrowhead did not simply benefit the Femineers, but it also provided me with the opportunity to become a better CSU STEM VISTA. During my first five months with the Femineers, I was task-oriented and constantly planning for meetings and events. However the trip provided me with the opportunity to get to know the Femineers and truly see the world from their perspective. I commend them for all of their hard work and dedication. My position as the STEM Student Success Coordinator community Liaison has elevated my scope of understanding on how to engage adolescents and possibly introduce them to what may change their lives. I find myself to be truly fortunate to have the opportunity to work closely with the Femineers.