Middle school girls reach for the stars

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Groton — As a couple dozen girls gathered around, a vice president from Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense in Simsbury who has worked on the Orion Space Program asked the group what they had learned from a hands-on engineering exercise in which more than a few bottle rockets had, in her words, experienced "structural failure."

"Size does matter," said one student.

"You need more time to make it," ventured another.

"You have to be very smart," offered up a third.

Workshop leader Meryl Mallery nodded and added that designing a rocket is all about power: "You have to have enough energy inside the rocket to counteract all that weight." 

More than 80 local female middle schoolers ramped up their power to innovate Thursday by spending up to five hours at CURE Innovation Commons doing a deep dive into science, technology, engineering and math workshops sponsored by the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame.

The students, from STEM Magnet Middle School and West Side Middle School in Groton and St. Joseph School and Benny Dover Jackson Middle School in New London, heard from an all-female group of mentors about what it's like to be an engineer, entrepreneur and drug developer, along with a host of other science- and math-related jobs.

Sarah Lubarsky, executive director of the Women's Hall of Fame, said currently only about a quarter of STEM-related jobs in the United States are occupied by women, and only 12 percent of its own inductees were in STEM fields. She would like to see that percentage increase substantially over the next few decades, encouraged by programs like the "STEMfem" workshops her group is sponsoring around the state.

"When girls are introduced to STEM jobs in high school, it's almost too late," said Emma Palzere-Rae, Ignite program manager at Thames River Innovation Place, which hosted the program.

This was the second year STEMfem had come to CURE Commons, a facility that Lena Harwood Pacheco, director of education for the Women's Hall of Fame, called a "real professional workspace."

Schools were invited to Thursday's program based on their intensive STEM programs. Students were chosen to attend by each of the schools, with a total of 49 from Groton schools and 32 from New London.

Participating companies and organizations included Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense, Pfizer Inc., Bits and Pixels LLC, Pratt & Whitney and CareerInSTEM.

Workshop titles were "Crazy for Rockets and Space," "Think Like an Engineer," "STEM Shark Tank," "Play with Arduino and the Internet of Things" and "STEM Career Exploration."

The Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame, at www.cwhf.org, is a statewide organization funded entirely by donations from individuals and foundations.

"We're all about providing role models of professional STEM women," said Lubarsky, the hall of fame director.

l.howard@theday.com

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