Encouraging Girls in STEM

Today is Girl Day, a movement that shows girls how creative and collaborative engineering is and how engineers are changing our world. With hundreds of events happening each year, together we are driving the conversation about girls and engineering. The culture is changing .. there is no better time to encourage the young girls in your life to pursue their interests in science.

STEMEnroll Her in Science Clubs

When I was a kid in school, there weren’t a whole lot of academic clubs that related to science and engineering. Thankfully, things have changed. Many schools and community groups now sponsor robotics clubs (First Lego League) and even host special events specifically for girls (Wow! That’s Engineering!).  Additionally, the Girl Scouts incorporate STEM-oriented activities as a major part of their overall programming, and there are conferences like AAUW’s Women in STEM that are designed to attract and interest young girls.

My dad would always say, just because something is hard, doesn’t mean you aren’t good at it.

To find out if a group exists in your community, start with your local science teachers. Even if there are no local clubs, your interest may be able to help spark something that would benefit girls throughout your community. In addition to local events, look into introducing girls to aspects of the national STEM movement.  Getting the girl in your life involved with other future women engineers doesn’t have to be limited to the school year either. The number of engineering-related summer camps is growing each year. Do your research.

Give Her a Hero

When little girls envision their futures, they often use women they admire as a role model for their own dreams. At a Roots & Shoots conference in 2011, Jane Goodall spoke about reaching for the moon as opposed to Mt Everest. My daughter told me later that she felt like Jane looked right at her when she spoke these words and she’s always tried to live up to that ever since.  Because of Jane’s influence, she has aspired to make a difference.

Similarly, if the girl in your life doesn’t know any famous female chemists, chances are she’s not going dream of being the next Marie Curie. So do what you can to introduce her to women whose legacies are just as important as those of George Washington Carver or Neil Armstrong, whom we all know and love.

Every hour you invest in the girl in your life will not only help improve her chance of success but also make her a more well-rounded, engaged citizen, whether she pursues a STEM-related field or not.

Encouraging Girls in STEM – More Ideas

  • How many girls go into STEM because someone told them they can’t do it? Tell them they can!
  • Take field trips to engineering departments.
  • Enroll in a welding course.
  • Visit an engineering office and visit with the female engineering team members who work there. Ask them about projects they are working on.
  • Take pictures female engineers and scientists and start a scrapbook to remind your girls of the cool women who work in engineering.
  • Take lots of math and physics classes early. Physics is a great way to show how to apply math.
  • Try to make STEM interesting for her – incorporate physics and engineering activities into your science curriculum. For example:

STEM Club: Reverse Engineering

Engineering is the science of designing and creating. Reverse engineering is the science of taking things apart to see how they work. Have you ever wondered what makes devices work or what is inside them? Then grab your toolbox – all you really need is a couple of screwdrivers (Philips and flathead) and a pair of wire-cutters – and an old appliance.  You’re underway!

reverse engineering

I first learned of the term Reverse Engineering from my fellow homeschool science blogger, Marci, when she shared a great printable she created for her kids, Reverse Engineering Printable Worksheets.  I knew immediately that this would be an activity my kids would love.

I wanted to provide my STEM Club kids with this same opportunity so I thereby inquired with the manager of a local Salvation Army store if he would be willing to donate to us a few electronics or appliances that didn’t work and thereby not marketable.  He was more than willing and we walked out with a box full of stuff to tear apart. girl engineers

I was quite surprised, actually, with how much the kids loved this activity.  They were engrossed in the task for 90 minutes in class and I know many of them continued to tinker when they got home.  They were encouraged to makes sketches in their notebooks and to label as many of the components as possible, but only a few followed through with the more menial task.

With the components they salvaged, I challenged them to create something … anything.  I shared a photo of a few robot-like sculptures others had created and suggested using hot glue or wire to adhere the parts together.  If they were able to mechanize their robots .. even better!

robot armySeveral students took me up on the challenge. One student, shown above, created a little robot army!  Another used an old coffee pot (sans the carafe) to create what looked like a robot head – its eyes even lit up and flashed in a menacing way.  I was so impressed with their creativity!

We discovered that the devices that were the most enjoyable to take apart were those with small motherboards within – an old cell phone, a VCR, or a fax machine.  Logically, the larger or more complex the device, the longer it took to take apart.

Reflecting upon this activity, I wish I had first walked the class through the disassembly of a single device – a flashlight, for example.  Flashlights are not only products that visually demonstrate fundamental concepts around simple circuitry, they can also be purchased cheaply en masse.  In fact, I may do so yet …

[ Admin Note:  Be cautious when taking apart televisions and monitors – they contain parts that can be dangerous.  Check out this tutorial for more information, How to Take Apart TV. ]

Exploring Alternative Energy – Hydroelectric Dams

In STEM Club, we are immersed in energy resources presently – so a field trip to a hydroelectric dam is the perfect field trip.  Shasta Dam, the 2nd largest dam in the country (after Grand Coulee in Washington state) is in our backyard – so it is the perfect field trip.

Hydro DamsShasta Dam is a curved gravity dam across the Sacramento River in the northern part of the U.S. state of California, at the north end of the Sacramento Valley. Like another curved gravity dam (Hoover Dam), it was a continuous pour concrete project, and in its day, ranked as one of the great civil engineering feats of the world.  The dam is 602 ft (183 m) high and 3,460 ft (1,055 m) long, with a base width or thickness of 543 ft (165.5 m). The reservoir created behind Shasta Dam is known as Shasta Lake and is a popular recreational boating area.

generator at shasta dam

Hydroelectric power is universally known as one of the cleaned, most efficient and inexpensive ways to produce power. Hydroelectric power is electricity generated using falling water.  At Shasta Dam, as water races down pipes (penstocks) towards the power plant, that water is directed at the blades of a water wheel (turbine).

The turbine is coupled to an electric generator by a long shaft.  The generator consists of a large, spinning “rotor” and a stationary “stator”.  The outer ring of the rotor is made up of a series of electromagnets.  The stator is comprised of a series of copper coils.  As the rotor spins, its magnetic field induces a current in the stator’s windings thereby generating electricity.

The five generators at the Shasta Dam have recently been upgraded by the Bureau of Reclamation, replacing the turbine portion of each generator.  This increases the plant capacity to 710 megawatts, with each unit running at 142 megawatts.  Utilizing the latest technology in design, the new turbines are more energy efficient.

Our visit this past week to the dam was not our first.  We toured the Shasta Dam facilities when we first moved to California.  Even so, we all learned something new and enjoyed the experience.  One of the highlights was discovering that since the Shasta Dam is a curved gravity dam, we could hear our echo bounce back and forth when we yelled across the span.  Additionally, one our first tour, we were most impressed by the train tunnel – as my son was passionate about trains at that age.  He is now more impressed with engineering marvels and as a result, he stayed close to the tour guide the entire time asking many questions.

Minecraft Model Shasta DamWhen we returned home, he created a model of the dam in one of his Minecraft worlds. Proving once again that Minecraft is educational.  He is now brainstorming ideas to create a three dimensional model showing how electricity is generated and transmitted to our homes.

If you are interested in touring a dam in your area or simply learning about dams from the comfort of your home – I have created a FREE set of notebooking printables to guide you along on your study.  These printables are a small part of my newest mini-unit, Alternative Energy Resources: Hydroelectric Dams, a 13 page ebook available for purchase in my store. In the coming months, I will be releasing a complete curriculum for energy resources.

Discovering China: The Super Skyline of Shanghai

discovering chinaWelcome back!  I hope you are enjoying your city by city tour of China.  If you are just joining us, I am delighted you are here.  We recently returned from a three-week family holiday in China. This is the seventh of ten posts whereby I introduce you to the culture of China through our eyes.

Teeming with international high-rollers, glittery skyscrapers and construction cranes, China’s sophisticated capital of business, Shanghai, wouldn’t seem a welcoming place for children at first glance. But it won’t take long to discover that with its many parks, markets and museums, Shanghai can captivate all ages.

Shanghai is a great city for kids to explore, from the top of the pink Oriental Pearl TV Tower overlooking the skyline, to classical Chinese gardens and zig-zag bridges, to boats on the Huangpu River, there’s always something new to see. You’ll also find Shanghai is a crossroads – the largest port in China, the city is hopping with a unique blend of old and new, east and west, Europe and Asia, the latest high-tech innovations and oldest traditions.


Despite the crowds (the population of Shanghai is 17 million), the city is relatively crime-free. Taxis are cheap, and the subway is easy to navigate. In fact, transportation is part of the fun, which begins as soon as you land. From the Pudong International Airport, about 30 miles east of the city, you can catch the 267-mile-per-hour German-engineered Maglev, or magnetic levitation, train. It’s a scenery-blurring, eight-minute hurtle to the edge of town. One-way trips are 50 yuan, about $6.40 at 7.85 yuan to the dollar, or 40 yuan with a same-day airline ticket. From the Maglev’s terminus at Longyang Lu, you can take a taxi or the subway to the city center.

discover shanghaiYuYuan

As early as the 15th century, the heart of Shanghai was the Yu Yuan (Yu Garden) area.  From the Yu Yuan’s zigzag bridge, children can toss fish food (2 yuan a bag) into a murky pond, and the water will roil with red and gold carp and red-eared slider turtles.

This Ming Dynasty walled garden of pavilions, willows and rocks has been overshadowed by its bazaar, a labyrinth of kiosks and specialty shops overhung by swooping, Ming-style tile roofs. Here, you can buy chopsticks, silk pajamas, wigs, American fast food, guitars, kites and fermented tofu (we had tried this at the home of our tutor and knew to avoid it – sorry, Shaun), among many other items. Merchants demonstrate everything from bubble-blowers to Chinese yo-yos; others beckon passersby to sample tea and gelato.


Shanghai’s lifeline to the sea, the Huangpu River, also divides the city into Puxi, its older, western part, and Pudong, the more recently developed, flashier section. Pudong’s riverfront promenade is ideal for strolls, flying kites and views of the Bund, a stretch of early 20th-century European edifices. The hard-working Huangpu bustles with tugs, barges and freighters.

shanghaiNight Cruise on Huangu River

One of the best ways to spend a few hours in Shanghai is to take a Huang Pu River Tour. The boats depart along the Bund every half-hour and you can book short or longer tours. We opted for a night cruise which departed at dusk, when landmarks on both banks are illuminated. The tour boats take you up and down the river and you’ll see not only the fabulous architecture on either side of the river, you’ll also get to enjoy the traffic along the river – a sign of an economy in motion.

The Huang Pu River is a tributary of the Yangtze and there is plenty of traffic on it to prove its importance. You’ll see the magnificent building skylines on both the historic west side (the Bund), and the modern east side (Pudong) as well as the working area of coal boats filling barges and sending them downriver. It’s fun to see such lively river life as well as Shanghai’s amazing skyline.

Super Skyline

There’s a new building going up in Shanghai’s Pudong that is slated to be the tallest building in Shanghai and the second tallest in the world. Upon its completion, the building will stand approximately 632 meters (2,073 ft) high and will have 121 stories, with a total floor area of 380,000 m2 (4,090,000 sq ft).  The Shanghai Tower will be completed in 2014 but until then, you can take your kids up to the top of other towers in China, Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center. We chose The World Financial Center because of its a fabulous sky deck.


Engineering: World's Tallest Buildings Unit Study

Engineering: World’s Tallest Buildings Unit Study

To commemorate Shanghai and to the delight of my daughter who desires to be an environmental / architectural engineer, I have put together an Engineering Unit Study that is sure to captivate the hearts of young engineers the world over.

Suzhou is our destination tomorrow.  For me, our excursion to Suzhou was one of the highlights of our holiday in China.  Come back tomorrow to discover why. 

Autumn-Hopscotch-2013This post is part of the iHomeschool Network’s Autumn Hopscotch, a 10 day series of posts by over 40 different homeschool bloggers. You can visit the hopscotch home page at iHN for ideas and inspiration in topics like Art for All Ages: Tips & Tutorials. There are literally hundreds of posts now compiled for you!

All 10 days of Discovering China will be linked to one landing page.  Bookmark it for reference!


Girls in Engineering Workshop Captures Her Imagination

For my daughter, the best part of a Saturday spent crafting a paper bridge, creating a water-powered crane, and making her own electric quiz game was, “everything.”  Ten years old, she joined about 60 other girls for the fourth annual Wow! That’s Engineering! program coordinated by the local Society of Women Engineers earlier this year.

girls in engineering hydroliftThe outreach program encourages girls in engineering by engaging them in hands-on activities.  This year, the girls constructed devices representing various engineering fields.  The girls were separated into small groups, those who knew each other well were put into different groups to encourage bridges of friendship in addition to the paper bridge design contest in which they took part.

“I really enjoyed the electricity game we made,” Sweetie shared.  “We made these circuits and if you get the right answer, a light will come on.”

My daughter wants to be an engineer one day and with many adult friends who are engineers themselves, she has a lot of mentors.  A day spent with peers exploring her area of interest, however, was a special opportunity.  She most enjoyed creating the paper bridge.  She went into the activity with confidence because she had previously built a very strong toothpick bridge for a homeschool science fair years ago. At the Wow! That’s Engineering! workshop, however, the set up was different.  Each girl was given a few pieces of paper and a handful of paper clips to build a bridge that could hold 100 pennies.  Having experienced a similar scenario, Sweetie was convinced her design would win.

When it came down to the test, the girls were presented with a problem.  Thy had been told they would be spanning a gap of about 8 inches, but when they measured the test site found that the estimate was 2 inches too small.  “We threw in that twist to make it more real,” the volunteer said. “We’ll go out to a site, and it’s different than what we were told.”

Sweetie’s friend also attended the Wow! That’s Engineering! workshop. She was proudly holding her Hydrolift, a wooden crane the size of a tea kettle that used two syringes as pumps to raise and lower rocks, when my husband came to pick up the girls.

“I want to come back ’cause it’s fun,” the girls said. “I love it.”

The Society of Women Engineers offers outreach programs for girls interested in engineering all over the country.  Visit their website and find a workshop nearest you.


Shasta Dam :: Field Trip Friday

I keep a list of local places we want to explore and adventures we hope to someday take part … essentially a  field trip wish list.  I’ve had ‘hydroelectric dam’ on the list for some time … and this week, we were finally able to check this one off the list.

View of Shasta Dam and Shasta Lake as you approach the dam site.

We joined up with a charter school to take part in an organized field trip to Shasta Dam – located north of Redding on the Sacramento River.  It turned out to be a fabulous experience.  We all learned so much – each of us connecting with something different the interpreter said.  The kids were intrigued and listened attentively the entire hour of the tour. We had previously studied energy resources and electricity so this field trip helped to clarify many things for us.

The view overlooking the dam as we walked to the tower / elevator for the start of the tour.

Initial construction of the Shasta Dam began in 1938 with excavation and the relocation of the Southern Pacific Railroad that ran through the dam site.  A tunnel was blasted through the nearby hillside to temporarily detour the train during construction, moving it away from the excavation work.  Along the Sacramento River in Redding, California, aggregate was gathered and delivered to stockpiles near the dam site by way of a 9.6 mile long conveyor belt, the longest of its type in the world.  The conveyor belt transported tons of gravel that would be used in the concrete mix to build the dam.

The conveyor belt that brought gravel from Redding to the construction site of Shasta Dam.

With excavation complete, construction on the dam began.  Freshly mixed concrete was delivered to forms (50′ x 50′ and 5′ deep) using 8-cubic yard buckets suspended from a cableway system used to move the concrete to waiting crews.  The massive blocks were built one on top of another, first to form the abutments, and finishing the dam by completing the spillway.

As the abutments rose, crews were busy building the permanent relocation track for the Southern Pacific Railroad, above where the new lake would be formed.  When this track was completed, the train was moved to its new location and the spillway construction began.  Before this could happen, an earthen coffer dam was built across the river upstream of the dam site, causing the river to rise and find the now empty railroad tunnel.  The river was allowed to flow past the dam site through the tunnel, just as the train had years before.

We stood in the south end of the tunnel (it has since been mostly filled in).  Inside, you could see evidence of soot on the ceiling and despite the fact that they dug down several feet from the train bed, the water level came to nearly the full height of the tunnel. The water level was evident where the soot had been scoured off the wall.  Buddy was intrigued by this tunnel and was delighted to have seen the redesigned locomotives (cab forward) that were necessitated due in part to this tunnel at the California State Railroad Museum earlier this year.  The tunnel was so long it would take a train more than five minutes to travel through it. As result, Southern Pacific rebuilt the train locomotive, putting the cab in the front and the tender and smoke stack behind to prevent asphyxiation.

While walking inside the dam, we were lead through this 300 ft hallway.  The acoustics were so good here that we could stand at one end and not only hear the echo at the other end of the hall, but literally the sound wave as it went past. This was a highlight of the tour for me.

The generators at the base of the dam, capable of producing 710 megawatts of power.

Buddy was also intrigued by the generators.  As we walked through this area, he turned to me and began a lengthy narration of one of his favorite episodes of World’s Toughest Fixes, the Columbia River Dam. I love it when their natural interests blend with our learning.  Unschooling Rocks!  🙂

Admin Note :: I want to emphasize that I understand the construction of a dam is controversial.  It dramatically alters the landscape and affects not only the wildlife but also prevents Native Americans from accessing sites of cultural importance.  I share this with you for educational purposes and want to clarify that I also share with my children the perspectives and opinions of the local Wintu people.