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#SXSWEdu: You go (far), girl! Inspiring girls in STEM

3 min read


Jackie Bastardi, a mechanical engineer, remembers what her high school guidance counselor said when she asked the counselor what it would be like to study engineering in college.

“She looked at me and said, ‘It will be hard,'” Bastardi explained. “She said it would involve a lot of math. She kind of scared me. I thought, ‘What am I getting myself into?'”

Bastardi and Adele Falco of Curious on Hudson, spoke Wednesday to attendees at SXSWEdu Playground session “You go (far), girl! Inspiring girls in STEM.” The organization produces classes and workshops on science, technology, engineering, math and applied arts for students in K-5 and middle school.

Bastardi and Falco shared four keys they use to get girls excited about exploring STEM:

Emphasize the fun of the journey. When talking about the training involved in STEM fields, let students know how much fun they’ll have on this journey, advised Falco. Don’t spend all your time focusing on rigorous course work and required skill sets. Bastardi tells the girls about her engineering training at RIT, emphasizing the fun experiences she had, such as building a solar oven with her sorority sisters or building hammers with her freshman classmates. These examples help change how the girls perceive engineering, taking it from boring to “cool.” She is honest with them about the work involved (and the occasional boring class that they will encounter) but she emphasizes this work as part of the fun. “I tell them that there’s a balance between work and play,” Bastardi explained. “You have fun but you’re also learning, putting all your heart and soul into learning engineering.”

Create personal connections. Let the girls see your human side, Bastardi recommended. Girls are often intimidated when they first learn that she is a mechanical engineer. To break the ice, she talks with them about her hobbies – bike riding and spending time with her dog – as well as the hobbies of other STEM women. The tactic helps the girls relax and open up. “Sharing these personal stories takes away some of that intimidation,” she said.”The girls are able to start learning, exploring and feeling comfortable. They make personal connections.”

Introduce them to relevant role models. Bastardi introduces the girls to her high-school and college friends that now work in the engineering field. The girls were captivated by stories of Sara, a civil engineer, who is working on the new Tappan Zee Bridge in New York; a structure they all know. Another friend, Henny, an electrical engineer, took on celebrity status when she revealed that she tested the lighting for the Hunger Games movie, a favorite among the girls. “They got so excited,” Bastardi said. “They realized that these women are real women and they’re doing things that connect to them.”

Link it to purpose. Girls want to do something that will contribute to the world around them. Bastardi tells the girls about her senior design project, a computer-controlled hydraulic nanomanipulator. The device, which can move a nanometer the size of a cell, is used to cell cancer research and treatment. The example enables the girls to see engineering on a new level, as professionals that make a difference in the world. “All of us have this core value to do good in this world,” Bastardi said. “We show them what our projects do, that do good in this world.”