Elizabeth Nolan, left, and Emery Giurlani, seventh graders of Carson Middle School, build a car as part of an activity during ‘Introduce a Girl to Engineering’ Day at the University of Nevada, Reno on Thursday. (Photo: Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal)
Abigayle Coulam was giggling as she swung around with a virtual reality headset, trying her hand for the first time at using the technology in the University of Nevada, Reno’s @Reality Virtual and Augmented Reality Lab.
“It was kind of crazy,” Coulam said. “I thought it’d just be really cool to come and I didn’t know if I was going to get chosen to come because there were a lot of other girls who wanted to come here, too.”
Coulam said she’s thinking about going into engineering as a career.
“It’s pretty cool,” she said.
Reno nonprofit Envirolution, University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Engineering and the university’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers wants to give girls like Coulam similar opportunities. They welcomed 50 Carson Middle School and Eagle Valley Middle School girls, genderqueer and nonbinary students to UNR’s first “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” event Feb. 24.
The event provided opportunities for the students to get a first glimpse at “what an engineer looks like” and to encourage them to enter the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields by hearing from other women and students who have chosen similar fields.
Team members from Envirolution, University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Engineering and the university’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers celebrated UNR’s first ‘Introduce a Girl to Engineering’ event on Feb. 24 with 50 Carson Middle School and Eagle Valley Middle School students on Feb. 24. (Photo: Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal)For Lola Hollingsworth, an Eagle Valley eighth grader, it was a chance to explore her curiosity in the chemical sciences. Hollingsworth said she would like to learn how to develop makeup, a passion that coincides with her interest in fashion.
“I’ve learned about formulas and basically how to find how chemicals react in the One Drop class,” she said. “Women do have a different insight on things and can actually help a lot.”
She added it was important for young girls not to feel so “singled out” if they wanted to pursue their studies in the sciences.
The event was held primarily in the Joe Crowley Student Union with a chance to rotate from various rooms to try experiments such as recording the number of water drops a penny could hold or assembling their own balloon cars.
Envirolution team members, including co-executive director of programs and partnerships Vanessa Robertson, co-executive director Mike Robertson of operations and technology, programs manager Aimee Frugoli and curriculum coordinator Megan Weinhold as well as board members helped to host the event throughout the day and interacted with the students during their various activities.
Envirolution board member Mark Korinek, Carson City School District’s director of operations and sustainability, also spent the morning amongst the students enjoy the fruits of their discovery. He said other events typically are held at the Gigafactory at Tesla, with a virtual event held on Feb. 19 that hosted 1,200 attendees across the United States, Mexico and Canada with Envirolution providing most of the planning, organizing and kit-building.
“I thought this was an awesome opportunity for (middle school) girls to see the possibilities of the engineering pathway in STEM,” Korinek said. “You could see that they had some experience with the engineering process as the evaluated their materials, discussed design with their partners, experimented with their prototypes, re-engineered with help from mentors after first test, and came up with a completed project.”
The students heard from College of Engineering Associate Dean Indira Chatterjee, who co-chairs its Courses and Curriculum Committee and works to improve retention and graduation rates for UNR. Chatterjee asked the eager young crowd at the beginning how many would consider going on to be engineers, doctors or lawyers, then showed a video of projects students have designed to improve neck posture, increase food delivery during the pandemic or flood mitigation solutions in Lemmon Valley college students came up with as they studied at the university.
She encouraged Carson City’s students to think about the machines, plans and possibilities in which they could enter themselves.
“Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” was first developed in 2018 in collaboration with Tesla to encourage more women to enter engineering careers with women making up only 15% of the workforce. The event has reached more than 700 middle school students enrolled in 25 schools in Nevada and 1,000 on a national level.
Meg Fitzgerald, recruitment and outreach coordinator with the College of Engineering, said the program trains up university students in K-12 grade-appropriate science lessons to go out to elementary classrooms in the region. Middle school or high school students receive summer camps and a more hands-on experience to understand more rigorous lessons, she said.
“If you have a degree in engineering, you’re a problem solver, and you can solve any problem brought to your attention,” she said.
Fitzgerald, whose own background has been in counseling and said she’s interested in solving “people problems,” said she has supported the College of Engineering’s recruitment efforts to bring more young women into the field, especially with its attempts to raise diversity overall.
“What’s beautiful is we’ve got a cross-representation of different diversities, and we’ve got all of these different faces who are pursuing their degree,” she said. “The world is limitless for people who have their background in engineering. They’re going to medical school and law school.”
But Thursday was the first time in Northern Nevada the local partners had worked together to bring the event to UNR, Fitzgerald said, and Carson City was eager to bring its Carson Middle and Eagle Valley Middle School students together. The Joe Crowley Student Union also provided the ideal venue with its rooms and theater.
“They were receptive,” she said. “It’s really great. We approached them and they were interested. We kept it to 50 (students) to make sure we could keep it manageable. The more people, the more volunteers we would have to have.”
Customer experience associate Shayleah Neth explains how a Starship Technologies robot works for 50 Carson City students interested in learning about engineering. (Photo: Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal)
The rotation included a behind-the-scenes look inside UNR’s Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center that utilizes the Mathewson Automated Retrieval System to gather more than 800,000 books, journals and documents from the University Libraries’ collection, compared to 500,000 items available in the open stacks on the third to fifth floors.
Veronica Valencia, stacks/ASRS (automated storage and retrieval systems) administrator, shared with students on the tours that she maintains the maintenance and operations of the robotic arms that store and retrieve the materials as they’re requested. She also gives safety trainings or trains new library employees on the use of MARS when they come on board. An arm can move at about 22 mph, perusing storage bins for special items and returning to the Knowledge Center’s pick-up dock on the second floor with materials.
Back in the theater, students received an up-close look at Starship Technologies’ food delivery robots, thanks to a presentation by customer experience associate Shayleah Neth. UNR’s 20 robots, which transport various foods on the campus between varying service areas and nearby dorms or apartments as far as Evans and Sierra streets, have series numbers for tracking purposes, Neth said, and described the process of submitting an order to a vendor and what it’s like working with Starship.
“I really enjoy working with these because they’re just the neatest, niftiest things,” Neth said. “They’re autonomous, they do all their own stuff and they seem to have their own character, a little bit of personality.”
As the day drew to a close, UNR President Brian Sandoval and Senior Vice Provost Jill Heaton, a herpetologist, provided inspiring comments.
Heaton said her love of reptiles led her to recruiting a high school student for extra assistance. Two years ago, she asked the youth to help her deconstruct a GPS tracking device, attach a larger battery and 3D print a carrying case that she could glue to the back of a tortoise for tracking.
“When you dream of what you want to do with engineering, don’t forget that Mother Nature is the best engineer out there,” Heaton said.