Innovative program breaks down gender roles to spark interest

Imagine Middle Ages warfare. What does it take to chuck boulders at your opponent? It takes accuracy and calculating the proper distance to reach your target. It’s an engineering problem that girls at last year’s Chicks in Science got to tackle at the Montana State University Billings Engineer Club booth. The girls who came by the booth were given two opportunities to launch nerf balls at their target. If at first you don’t succeed, recalculate. With the help of the college students, the girls made adjustments for accuracy and distance and then, fired again. This is STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — at work. Getting girls interested in it is what this event is all about.


This year when the 7th and 8th grade girls stop by the MSU Billings booth during the morning session, they will get to try their hands, and their minds, at writing computer code. With every slash, dot and equal sign comes a challenge to learn a new language. It’s one that this day hopes will light up more than a few professional passions and start to engage the scientists of tomorrow.

When Chicks In Science (now called Girls-N-Science) started back in 2008, studies showed that girls weren’t taking advantage of exciting opportunities for careers with a STEM focus, instead they were leaving those jobs to their male counterparts.

Girls-N-Science hopes to continue to break that trend.

This one-day science adventure for girls in 4th through 8th grades not only introduces them to professional women with a science, technology, engineering and math background but hopes to engage them with dozens of hands-on activities to show them what a career in these disciplines might look like.


Laura Gittings-Carlson is the Continuing Education Program Developer with Montana State University Billings, and with the help of a committee has been putting on this program. New to the event this year is a morning hands-on program called STEM Stars that is just for middle school girls. Here, 7th and 8th grade girls can explore the ways that computer science touches our everyday lives. They can look at genetic mutations of a virus. Or, they can see first-hand the physical effects of exercise on the body. Gittings-Carlson says the changes were made “to go further with these girls, beyond just a one-day event.”

Claire Oakley, PhD, MHA, Program Director for Population Health Services at RiverStone Health, is on the organizing committee and has been part of this event since its inception. For her it’s all about “role model, role model, role model…they did it and thus so can I.” She adds, “Mentoring lets young people see what is possible and gives them the courage to pursue a dream and make it a reality someday.”

Katey Plymesser, PhD, PE, is a pre-engineering faculty member at MSU Billings, a newer member of the organizing committee and participant in the event. For her, the reward is seeing just how engaged these girls become during the day. She says, “It’s like a science carnival! The energy in the room is infectious.” Plymesser thinks that to get young women into the STEM fields, it will take “normalizing this idea that women can work in whatever field they choose and training our teachers to present STEM in a way that is not intimidating.”

Two women teaching STEM to the next generation are Elizabeth Heine and Brooke Taylor, math teachers at Billings Senior High School. Both say they see girls making inroads. Heine says the majority of freshmen in her sophomore-level geometry class are girls. Heine says some of her strongest students mathematically are girls.

One of the classes Taylor teaches is Honors Algebra 2. She has seen a growth in the girls taking the class, from just under 41 percent of the class last year, to well over 46 percent this year. She says for those girls taking Honors Algebra 2 as sophomores, it places them on a course for Pre-Calculus as juniors and Advanced Placement Calculus as seniors. It’s the perfect track for pursuing science related fields in college.

Taylor says the future is waiting for these girls to take an interest in careers in STEM. “In our ever-changing world, our future jobs related to math and science will need tech-savvy, creative problem solvers.” Thanks to Girls-N-Science, hopefully a few more girls will see these fields are ready and waiting, looking to them to help solve the professional challenges of tomorrow.



What is it?
A FREE, fun, hands-on, minds-on event introducing girls to fields in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

For Whom?
4th through 8th grade girls, must be accompanied by an adult

Saturday, April 16 from 12:30 to 4:00 PM

Montana State University Billings, Alteroitz Gym on 27th Street.

For more
Visit You can register there for the morning STEM Stars session as well.


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