By Paul Roupe
On a white board, inside a spacious room under construction from all angles, someone had scribbled a message, which seemed more about motivation than keeping time:
6 Days left until Grand Opening.
The number was switched out as the days neared closer to Aug. 4, when the Girl Scouts would open a STEM center (dedicated to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) on Oakdale Road in Modesto.
The first of its kind in the Central Valley and second in the state behind the Sacramento location, the center is a place where young minds can gain knowledge they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to.
According to a 2016 report released by the Department of Education titled STEM 2026: A Vision for Innovation in STEM education, 20 percent of U.S. jobs in the next five years will require “a high level of knowledge in any one STEM field.”
But thinking about STEM doesn’t just mean thinking about engineers or scientists sporting white lab coats. Becoming grounded and trained in scientific thinking at an early age can expand a child’s future career possibilities.
The Department’s report goes on to confirm this, saying that “data show that the set of core cognitive knowledge, skills, and abilities that are associated with a STEM education are in demand in nearly all job sectors and occupations.”
And providing those opportunities is just what the new location in Modesto sets out to do.
Julie O’Donnell, the senior director of Operations for the Girl Scouts Heart of Central California, is excited about this new venture.
She points out that there will be additions that the Sacramento location doesn’t have, such as a virtual reality experience and an outdoor space to focus on agriculture. There are also plans to put in a lab for chemistry, but for now there is enough in place to get a good head start.
Manager of STEM initiatives for the Girl Scouts Heart of Central California Beth Peters says that the VR system, Google Expedition, will be utilized primarily for immersive learning. It won’t be used to slay dragons or build villages (though, presumably at some point they could be used for that. After all, all work and no play…well…). For example, instead of looking at a computer model or a video of an archaeological site, you can witness it firsthand. Examine a DNA strand up close. Take a trip to the moon. Ride a rover on Mars.
It all contributes to helping girls visualize themselves in a certain field, Peters says, noting that “women’s voices are vital” and also that it’s important for them “to come in and learn what skills they need and what path they need to take.”
The center will also highlight what is called the “Maker Movement,” which, as O’Donnell says, is “all about getting girls in here and trying things and having a space where they feel comfortable.”
As part of the Maker Movement, ordinary things are used to create and build, and along the back wall sits a row of toolboxes filled with wrenches and screwdrivers.
Another addition is a spot to detach from cell phones and electronics, called “the livingroom.”
“What (the girls) wanted was a space to unplug, which I thought was fascinating because you think of girls always wanting to be on their cell phones. They really wanted a space to get off the grid,” says O’Donnell.
Just outside “the livingroom” is something called the marble roll, where you try to move a marble from as high as you can as slow as you can to the bottom with the materials provided: tape, tubing, or whatever is nearby. It’s self-guided, and it’s up to you to shuffle things around in a trial and error process.
Some other features include the “Fab Lab,” with a 3-D printer and laser printer for woodcuts, as well as a coding area where the focus is steered towards engineering and robotics.
But perhaps one of the more important aspects of the new center is the local legends wall, which is designed to expose girls to women in STEM-related professions.
Showcased on it is a brief profile, and next to them all of the tools needed for that specific job. If the woman highlighted is an entomologist, then you will see forceps, a butterfly net, and some specimen bags.
O’Donnell says that the “girls want to be able to see themselves doing something, and the more we can show them in a STEM career,” the easier it is for them to get started in one.
When the grand opening finally arrived, there was a definite sense of excitement and buoyancy in the air. The kids were having a great time exploring the center, pushing squigglebots they made, learning about science and realizing that there are others out there with similar interests.
Cyprin Mason, a 17-year-old member of the Girl Scouts Task Force (which acts as sort of a guide for the younger girls), thinks it’s important for them to know about STEM.
“The world we live in compels girls to train themselves, and even if they don’t go into a STEM-related field, at least they were exposed to it,” she says.
Sixteen-year-old Samara Mejia, who aspires to go into the medical field in either orthotics or prosthetics, agrees, and she joined the Task Force so she could help.
“I wanted more girls to go into STEM jobs,” she says, adding that “it gives them more confidence, creativity, and the feeling that anything is possible.”