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West Virginia Girl Day connects youngsters with women in STEM

Students at 2018 WV Girl Day in Beckley

In WVU Tech’s Carter Hall auditorium, more than 60 eighth-grade girls from Raleigh and Nicholas counties broke into teams, their arms loaded with pipe insulation, tape, scissors and marbles. The goal? Build a marble “roller coaster” using their newfound understanding of potential and kinetic energy.

Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day – or “Girl Day” – is part of National Engineers Week. The event connects young girls with female STEM professionals for a day of experiments and career exploration. On Thursday, March 8, BridgeValley Technical and Community College’s version, West Virginia Girl Day, made its debut in Beckley.

WVU Tech civil engineering grad Melissa Thompson is a professor at BridgeValley. She started the West Virginia Girl Day program ten years ago with the goal of bringing the initiative to the state.

Students at 2018 WV Girl Day in Beckley

"We're trying to inspire the girls and to have them see positive role models. When I was young, I didn't know any women engineers or women scientists, so we encourage women to dream big and do what they want to do,” she said.

The event is designed specifically for eighth-grade students. It’s an age group that Thompson says is perfect for an event like Girl Day.

"They're getting ready for high school. They're thinking about what classes they might want to take and looking at what path they might want to choose in high school and beyond," she said.

Thursday’s event was the first in Beckley and was made possible by a DiscoverE Bell Girl Day grant and corporate sponsorships. Thompson said that the program also runs in Montgomery, South Charleston and Fairmont.

"I want to plant this program in various places so that more kids can be a part of it. Some students were traveling hours to come to Charleston, so our goal is to get out into those communities so that more girls can access this,” she said.

Dr. Kimberlyn Gray worked with Thompson to bring the event to WVU Tech. The professor oversees much of Tech’s K-12 STEM outreach.

“We want students from Southern West Virginia to experience this opportunity,” said Gray.

“So much research shows that what you will become can be impacted by what you see other people doing. We want them to see women working in these fields. If they don't have any role models who look like them and talk like them and grew up like them, then they may think that these fields are for other people or that they can’t follow the path that they’re really built for,” she said.

Michelle Kinder is an engineering technician at Thrasher Engineering in Charleston, West Virginia. She attended Girl Day to show students that there’s a place for women in engineering.

“I’m here to try to help inspire these girls and let them in on what I do in my field. Engineering is wide open. You can do a lot with it. You might be a minority in the engineering field, but women engineers are a strong group,” she said.

Kinder said that the girls in attendance were great to work with and that, as a professional, it was refreshing to see the kind of youthful curiosity that drove her into the field of engineering.

“They were amazing. I would love for other professionals to be involved because we need to show these girls the wide range of different professions that are out there,” she said.

Visiting students also got to meet with female college students who are studying engineering disciplines, like Besrat Seifu, a senior chemical engineering major from Alexandria, Virginia.

Seifu attended Girl Day to help students and to participate in a discussion panel that answered questions about everything from girls in STEM to what life is like in college.

“Growing up, young girls are very good at math and science before they get into high school, so I think it’s very important to influence these young girls so that they know they can do it. They have the ability and they have everything they need as long as they work hard,” she said.

Seifu said it’s important for college students to get involved at the K-12 level.

“We serve as an example and as a role model. I feel like everybody needs someone to look up to in order to go somewhere,” she added.

Students like Jaidyn Lucas said that Girl Day was a great time. Her favorite part of the day? Building the marble roller coaster.

“We watched a movie on engineering and it inspired a lot of us. I learned about how different heights and potential and kinetic energy all come together to make a smooth roller coaster. My team was a successful team and we got third place,” she said.

The Trap Hill Middle School student says she wants to be an orthodontist even though she learned a lot about being and engineer. Even so, she said everyone should have a chance to pursue whatever field they’re interested in.  

“Don’t let people bring you down about it, no matter if you’re a boy or a girl,” she said.

Thursday’s Girl Day event was sponsored by DiscoverE Girl Day, Toyota, the West Virginia Society of Professional Engineers, TransCanada, the Women’s International Network of Utility Professionals, Terracon, HDR and ZMM. Professionals from AEP, Thrasher and HDR were on-hand to work with students during the event.

"It's wonderful for these companies that want to reach out and help to foster the next generation of engineers,” said Thompson. “We have some wonderful women who want to give back. Being able to give back is in their hearts and they're great at it.”

Thompson said that the next West Virginia Girl Day event will be hosted in Fairmont on Tuesday, March 20. Find out more on the WV Girl Day Facebook page.