Project Lead the Way: Engineering is for everyone

Sunday , October 29, 2017 - 12:00 AM

By MCKENZIE LEININGER
TX. Correspondent

Science, technology, engineering and math. These are the STEM fields — the areas of academia that create the world around you.

Science explores the natural world around us, encompassing everything from developing medical cures to discovering a new species of frogs. Technology builds up our digital experience, creating new software and devices to improve our connection with, well, everything. Engineering constructs the buildings and machinery we use every day, ensuring we all have a safe and beautiful environment in which to live our lives.

And math uses numerical equations and concepts of physics to provide the grunt work behind the end results of the other STEM fields.

It all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Not only do those in STEM professions get the satisfaction of improving the world, they also earn some of the highest salaries available in the workforce.

And yet, for all these benefits, women remain the vast minority in these professions. Even of those who do end up in a STEM field, few women ever shine through obscurity to rise to national recognition in their profession.

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I had my own experience with being one of those in the female minority this past year. As a ninth grader at South Ogden Junior High, I decided to take a course in Project Lead the Way, a national nonprofit organization that teaches about and provides opportunities to participate in STEM fields of study.

For ninth graders in the Weber School District, this course takes the form of getting up early, taking a bus to Weber Innovations High School, and missing the first two periods at your regular school in order to get a full 90-minute Project Lead The Way class.

It was kind of an odd setup, considering that for the first part of the day, I had A-B Day, but upon returning, I was expected to return to an eight-period schedule. Project Lead the Way students also had the great misfortune — or great fortune, depending on how you looked at it — to miss the first part of our third period class.

How in the world did this work out, you ask? Well, since Project Lead the Way counted as one elective class and one science class, we didn’t have a first and second period at our normal schools, so we didn’t miss anything.

Despite the complexity of scheduling, the oddest thing for me to experience was the lack of girls. In most normal classes, the girl-boy ratio is usually about fifty-fifty. Not so in Project Lead the Way. At the very best, it was four boys for every one girl.

To manage this problem, two of the project classes were completely boys, and the remaining two were half boys and half girls. This generally worked out fine, until all four classes did something together. For example, we took a field trip to iRock Climbing Wall. Half the students went one day, half the next.

However, somehow I ended up being one of two girls in the almost 50 students who went. It made for an interesting field trip, to say the least.

So yes, it was hard, at first. I was in a completely new class, where only five of the kids came from my own school. Of those five, only three were girls. So I was taking two challenging classes, Physics with Technology and Principles of Engineering, with a room full of strangers and a school full of boys.

I could’ve given up. I could’ve said, “You know what, I quit. This is too hard.”

And unfortunately, for many women, that’s what happens. Because the STEM fields are so male-dominated, and because they are in and of themselves challenging disciplines that require extensive education, many women drop out, and so the cycle continues of a female drought in these fields.

Despite all this, I decided to stick with it. I worked hard at my classes, taking all the notes I could, retaking tests and studying on the weekends. I made friends with my classmates, boy or girl, South Ogden Junior High student or not. I listened to my teachers and did my best on every assignment.

I made the most of the experience because I wanted to prove that yes, a girl can be in a STEM field. And more than that, she can excel.

You know what happened? That ninth grade year ended up being the best school year of my life. I made tons of new friends and I learned a lot about engineering.

But more than all of that, I learned a lot about myself, and about women everywhere. We can be in STEM fields. We can get a PhD in mechanical engineering. We can create bridges and houses and cars and ships as well as any man can.

So to women and girls everywhere, don’t be afraid of the STEM fields. Don’t drop out of that math or science class because you think you can’t do it. You can do it. So go out there and prove the world wrong!

McKenzie Leininger is a sophomore at Bonneville High School who loves engineering, eating and writing. Email her at fiorgaoth@gmail.com.

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