Sparking a Science and Technology “Boom” Among Young Women

If the students at the Portland, Oregon all-girls school, St. Mary’s Academy (SMA) are any indication, the best way to get kids excited about the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields might be through a bucket of sand.

To understand how this decidedly low-tech substance can bring out the inner-engineer in a group of young women, you need to know about the Science Olympiad, a national K-12 science competition. SMA participates in the Science Olympiad each year via the Boomilever challenge – one of 23 events at the Science Olympiad – which requires teams to build a wooden structure designed to hold as much weight as possible before breaking.

The Boomilever, which is constructed solely of wood and glue, is mounted to a wall via a bolt and is slowly loaded with sand until either the Boomilever breaks, or the maximum weight of 15 kilograms is reached. The winner is crowned by determining the ratio between how much the structure held versus how much the structure weighed. This year’s Boomilever had a ratio of 660+, which earned the school a 31st place showing at the 2013 Science Olympiad National Tournament—a particularly impressive feat given the participation of 6,800 teams from all 50 states.

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One of the keys to the team’s success was their use of easy-to-use 3D CAD software, Autodesk Inventor, and Autodesk ForceEffect, a free, mobile design and simulation app, both of which allowed them to analyze and simulate the different ways in which the Boomilever might behave before building it. The software was introduced to St. Mary’s through one of Autodesk’s own employees, who regularly volunteers his time with the students and teams:

“By providing access to technology that is fun, creative, and easy-to-use, we are aiming to inspire a lifelong love of design in students,” said Michael Kwan, St. Mary’s volunteer and mentor and program manager at Autodesk. “Design software such as Inventor and ForceEffect give these kids the tools they need to participate and win in events like the Science Olympiad, all while preparing them for successful careers in STEM, digital arts, and other related fields.”

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Certainly, something seems to be having a positive effect on the young women at St. Mary’s; all 147 seniors in the 2013 graduating class were accepted to college. And a survey of St. Mary’s graduates over a ten-year period—from 1997 to 2007—found that 47 percent of respondents had entered STEM fields after college, compared to a 24.8 percent average for the rest of the nation.

President Barack Obama has called for increased involvement of women in the STEM fields, and in April 2011, the White House announced four new commitments to increase women’s and girls’ interest = and involvement in STEM, including more private sector investments, a plan to change the image of girls in STEM in the media, as well as an initiative to increase the number of female STEM volunteers in schools. Autodesk’s education team is also involved in this commitment through its creation of the Autodesk Digital STEAM Workshop portal (the ‘A’ in STEAM stands for Digital Arts), an ISTE-certified site offering teachers free access to robust and interactive educational curriculum.

Kudos go out to the students of St. Mary’s Academy and to all the other school-aged girls demonstrating a passion for STEM professions. It’s their passion and commitment that will continue to prove that women have an equal place with men in science- and engineering-related professions.