Hands-On Learning to Spark Girls Interest in Careers in Science, Math, and Technology

7th and 8th Grade girls build solar ovens to cook s’mores as part of the annual Expanding Your Horizons conference in Kalispell. The Conference aims to spark interest in math, science, and technology for middle school aged girls.

Helping spark girls’ interest in the fields of science, math, and technology is the goal behind Expanding Your Horizons. It’s an international project founded by California scientists in the 19-70’s who saw a need for more women in the sciences.

Decades later the effort continues.

Montana has two Expanding-your-horizons conferences aimed at middle-school-aged girls; one in Bozeman, the other at the Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell.

This year the Kalispell conference drew nearly 300 7th and 8th grade girls from schools all over the Flathead as well as Libby, Hot Springs, Troy, Thompson Falls, and Browning.

The local Soroptimists International chapter hosts the annual event. President of the Kalispell Chapter Diane Yarus says the day breaks up into a series of hands-on workshops with women in different science and technology fields, “we have a lot of medical oriented workshops, we have one on surveying- so we have a lot of alternative type of careers for girls, we’ve got one on wind power,” Yarus said.

They also have a workshop that focuses on women in the media- how women are portrayed, and how to recognize positive and negative images. Yarus says they specifically focus the conference on middle school aged girls.

“We do know that a lot of girls stop taking math and science classes in high school. That middle school time is a very critical time to pique their interest in math and sciences, and give them that real world example as well,” Yarus said.

Down the hall in one of the classrooms at FVCC students tear off strips of tape to put together solar ovens in one of the breakout sessions.

They’ve taken pizza boxes, cut a square flap out of the top, wrapped it with tinfoil, then covered the square hole with plastic wrap. Inside the box black paper is taped to the bottom with rolled up newspaper on each side.

8th grader Tessa Coyle said the sun will reflect off the tinfoil, through the plastic wrap, onto the black sheet on which sits graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows, “and since the black absorbs all the heat more efficiently, it will cook them,” Coyle said the newspaper works as an insulator to keep the heat in once captured.

Energy Policy Analyst Lauren Casey with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council is leading this breakout session.

“I’m teaching them about energy resources, and the fact that, as an energy planner, we evaluate how to meet energy needs from various resources while weighing various costs and benefits. So, I talk about traditional fossil fuel resources, and thermal generation, talk about hydro-power, and I talk a little bit about renewables,” Casey said.

She is also an alumna of the Expanding Your Horizon’s program, “and I remember thoroughly enjoying my classes on veterinary medicine, and forensic science, and there was definitely a connection between that day and my wanting to take more science classes in middle school and high school.”

Diane Yarus says that’s the goal of the whole program; sparking girls interest in some of the possible careers in math, science, and technology.

“Because we know their earning potential, if they pursue careers in those tracks, are going to be more lucrative for them, and so we really want to encourage them. And, you know, once they get to college, to find out that they really should have taken a more advanced math in high school can set them on a different path once they’re in college,” Yarus said.

Expanding your Horizons comes to the Flathead each year, at Flathead Valley Community College after college classes get out for the semester.

Flathead’s “Expanding Your Horizons”

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