Houston STEM camp aims to help break gender and career stereotypes

alopez@macon.comJune 4, 2014 

WARNER ROBINS -- About 95 percent of the students taking Houston County Career Academy nursing classes from Shanelle Bobo this past school year were young women.

This week, she worked exclusively with young men to expose them to the nursing field as part of the school’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics camp. Her students witnessed a helicopter rescue crew land at the school, became CPR certified and dissected chickens.

“Girls are a little more willing to sit down in a classroom and listen, and guys are just a lot more active learners,” Bobo said. “The more things that you can get them physically doing, the more likely it is that they are going to learn.”

The STEM camp, running through Friday, was offered to students enrolled in Houston County schools who are entering the ninth or 10th grades.

“Currently, there are exceptional career opportunities for females in the fields of engineering and automotive and for males in the field of health care,” according to a camp flier. “The purpose of this camp is to expose students to career opportunities in these nontraditional fields.”

In addition, part of the camp’s purpose is to promote the career pathways offered at Houston County Career Academy throughout the regular school year, Bobo said.

Employers want high school graduates with technical skills and hands-on experience, she said, and that’s exactly what Houston County Career Academy aims to provide.

Girls under the hood

After completing their activities for the day, the young men in Bobo’s class went to another classroom to join a group of 11 girls learning automotive skills.

Their instructor, Jimmy Jones, explained how to jump start a car battery without risking electrical shock. Already he had lectured and demonstrated how to prepare an emergency kit, how to change a car’s oil and how to repair a flat tire.

Jones is employed through Central Georgia Technical College. As part of its partnership with the Houston County school district, students in Houston County Career Academy’s automotive program are eligible to receive college credits.

Three of Jones’ female students this past year especially stood out for how much they enjoyed the program.

“They were some of the best ones as far as reading a wire diagram and the fine-tune diagnostic stuff,” he said.

Jones worked in dealerships for 17 years and has seen women prove themselves in the automotive field.

“A female may bring a different perspective to the group and you get a little bit different problem-solving skills,” he said.

His daughter Megan, who was helping out all week with the camp, agreed.

“A girl can do anything a guy can,” she said.

Rockets and catapults

There are many more women pursuing careers in engineering now than several decades ago, but the gender gap remains wide.

Last year, the Society of Women Engineers analyzed research on engineering and gender and found that increases in the number of women in the profession had slowed or stopped altogether.

According to the authors of the analysis, many studies find that young women continue to choose fields other than engineering and regard the profession as stereotypically masculine.

”Employers are particularly looking for females in the engineering area,” Jimmie Fouts said, Wednesday. “The bad thing is we just don’t have enough.”

Fouts, who is retiring after 20 years in the Houston County school district, spent the last three days guiding about 15 girls through several engineering projects. Wednesday, the girls worked individually on model rockets and trebuchets, or medieval-style catapults. The plan for Thursday is to launch their rockets and start on their chemical engineering projects, which involve creating body lotions and perfumes.

Abigail Spratling, who will be a junior next fall at Perry High School, said that although society has traditionally pushed girls away from engineering, that hasn’t discouraged her from wanting to pursue a career in biomedical or chemical engineering.

“I’ve never cared what society thinks,” she said.

To contact writer Andres David Lopez, call 478-256-9751.

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