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Education Matters

2016 Operation SMART Program

September 1st, 2016

By D'Andre Wilson-Ihejirika

Get ready to get slimy! This fall, Girls Inc. of Northern Alberta in collaboration with BrainSTEM Alliance will be hosting the 5th annual Operation SMART program! SMART stands for Science, Math and Relevant Technology and since 2012, this program has been showing girls aged 10-14 how their SMART skills can be used in everything around us.

During this eight-week program, the girls will be introduced to a different engineering discipline each week. In chemical engineering, girls get dirty using chemical reactions to make slime, then clean themselves up with their own homemade soap! In mechanical engineering, girls use math and physics, calculating forces and kinetic energy to build their own roller coasters and mini rockets! Civil engineering teaches the girls about stable structures, road design and groundwater systems. How do we engineer Halloween? Industrial engineers make candy bag assembly lines!

Partnerships with institutions like the Oil Sands Discovery Centre allow the girls to learn about the science and engineering here at home in YMM. At the centre, girls learn about mining and petroleum engineering while completing hands-on activities like mining the chocolate chips from cookies, core sampling of Play-Doh and extracting actual bitumen from our own oil sand.

But why have an entire engineering program just for girls? Statistics have shown that the demand for professionals in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is steadily increasing year after year. With our growing dependence on technology we need new innovators to continue to develop solutions to our world’s biggest problems. BUT only about a quarter of STEM professionals are women! Despite young girls having a very similar interest level and ability in science fields when they are in elementary school, biases introduced at around middle school years slowly cause girls to lose interest in pursuing these disciplines.

Operation SMART is working to change all of that!

In the SMART program, girls are allowed to experience science and engineering in a safe environment. They can get dirty and make mistakes and that is part of the fun! One activity the girls participate in is the Egg Drop Challenge. The students learn about the concepts of engineering design and project management to build a contraption that will protect an egg from breaking while keeping within a certain budget. The girls will work in teams to plan their designs, decide on their materials and calculate the costs to build. Then they test the device! Eggs are dropped from heights of 8ft and higher. If their device was designed correctly, the egg is safe! If not then… SPLAT!!! Some of the girls have loved the mess so much that even if their design works they will smash their eggs just for fun.

Activities like these can show the girls that they don’t have to be pretty and perfect all of the time. But it also shows them that an engineer can come in all shapes and sizes! Female engineers from sponsor organizations like APEGA, Suncor Energy and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo work with the girls every week, sharing their experience as female engineers working in industry while mentoring and teaching the girls through the hands-on activities. These volunteers show our young girls that they can be engineers too!

Little by little, the SMART program is helping to decrease the gender gap in STEM fields. Each year the girls have shown a higher interest and understanding of engineering after going through the SMART program than before, and some of the girls have gone on to win at their school science fairs and even medal at the Wood Buffalo Regional Science Fair! This program could not be possible without the generous donations from everyone in YMM through the United Way of Fort McMurray. We are changing the world, one slimy girl at a time!

D'Andre Wilson-Ihejirika, M.ASc., P.Eng, PMP. She is the Founder & Lead Program Consultant for BrainSTEM Alliance. for more info.

Tags: education, girls

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