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Women in STEM conference highlights career possibilities for school aged participants March 9, 2020

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Northeastern State University education student Destiny May shows a pair of middle school girls how to program a table to remotely operate a robot at the Oklahoma Women in STEM conference.

Editor’s note: I was invited to attend the recent Oklahoma Women in STEM conference on the Broken Arrow campus of Northeastern State University by my friends at the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST). This is my report from the engaging science, technology, engineering and math activities for young women I saw during the conference. Check out the terrific OCAST video shot at the conference. 

By Jim Stafford

BROKEN ARROW – A group of middle school and high school aged young women gathered at the base of a stairwell in a building on the Broken Arrow campus of Northeastern State University and collectively looked up.

Standing on a step about 10 feet above them, another young woman held out a trash bag connected by string to a Styrofoam cup that held a single egg.

It was a homemade parachute, constructed during an aerodynamics and engineering workshop as part of the recent Oklahoma Women in STEM conference at NSU.

The contraption dangled over the crowd for a moment as a voice counted down “3, 2, 1.” Then it dropped. The trash bag filled with air and turned into a parachute, floating to the ground.

The egg survived unbroken.

Xan Black, executive director of conference co-sponsor Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance, led the aerodynamics workshop and counted down each parachute drop. It was an exercise designed to showcase the benefits of teamwork, persistence and perhaps even spark some future career interest in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — she said.

“My real hope is that they will all consider a career in aviation or aerospace,” Black said. “Oklahoma has such a rich tradition in those industries, and I want those girls to know you absolutely have a place in the aerospace industry.”

Co-sponsored by the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance and NSU, the conference drew about 150 middle school and high school girls from areas surrounding Tulsa, as well as teachers and industry mentors. It concluded with a luncheon where organizers honored about 30 women who work in STEM professions across Oklahoma.

Dr. Kayse Shrum, a physician and president of the Oklahoma State College of Osteopathic Medicine, as well as Oklahoma’s Secretary of Science and Innovation, served as keynote speaker.

She urged the young women in her audience to set goals and pursue their dreams.

“My message today was really about walking in your own shoes,” she said. “It’s really being your authentic self. If you set a goal for yourself, you can achieve it, even if everyone around you thinks that’s a ridiculous goal or that’s not achievable.”

As Shrum spoke, an accompanying slide showed how under-represented women are in STEM fields. According to the National Science Foundation, women comprise only 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce.

Shrum used her own example of pursuing a STEM career. She grew up in the community of Coweta, OK, and went to college as a softball player. A professor noticed her math and science abilities and encouraged her to pursue a medical career.

“I had no idea I was capable of becoming a physician until my professor empowered me by saying ‘I think you can,’” she said.

The Women in STEM conference at NSU’s Broken Arrow campus featured a demonstration of a working robotic arm.

Kinnee Tilly, vice president of Business Development for the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance, also addressed the luncheon audience, emphasizing the importance of expanding the number of women involved in STEM careers in Oklahoma.

“The workforce pipeline is very important to the success of our state, and we need all of you to look at what your career opportunities are,” she said.

The conference also showcased robotics, computer programming, math skills and matched young women with career mentors.

“I hope the girls take away from this conference that within the realm of STEM, there are so many interesting fields and so many interesting problems and challenges, that they will think about that and say ‘I just might take that extra math class or join that robotics club,’” Black said. “And I hope these girls look around and see 150 other young girls here, all of whom are interested in STEM. That’s very important.”

Jim Stafford writes about Oklahoma innovation and research and development topics on behalf of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST).

Take me out to the ‘Botball’ game: Robotics competition fuels STEM interests July 15, 2019

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The KISS Institute for Practical Robotics (KIPR) unleashed hundreds of robots in Norman at the recent Global Conference on Educational Robotics.

The event brought 700 school aged software engineers to Oklahoma from around the world.

Students from elementary age to high school competed in an international robotics competition called “Botball,” in which autonomous robots they designed, built and programmed attempted to tackle the task of cleaning up a virtual “city” that had been ravaged by flooding.

I was there at the invitation of my friends at the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST) for the opportunity to see some student-built robots in action.

A student team makes last-second adjustments to their robot before the Botball tournament begins.

While students saw Botball as a fun and challenging competition, the KIPR Institute describes it as a “standards-based” STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education program.

“What is awesome about Botball, I have students that are writing code and doing all of this in the third grade,” said Steve Goodgame, executive director of the KIPR Institute. “I had a college student who came in earlier and said he was working with the elementary students and ‘my gosh, that’s what I was doing as a freshman in college and these third graders are doing it.’”

The KIPR Institute hosts STEM events throughout the year and regional Botball competitions from which top teams qualify for the International competition.

The Institute has a mission to improve the public’s understanding of STEM and “develop the skills, character and aspirations of students” while contributing to the enrichment of schools and the community.

Teams from Canada, Mexico, Qatar, Kuwait, China, Poland, Austria, Africa, Taiwan and across the United States came to Norman for this year’s event, which also included an aerial drone competition and international keynote speakers.

Of course, there’s a bottom line to all the Botball fun. And that’s the acquisition of STEM skills that help create a workforce prepared for the career demands of the future.

“We are teaching a bunch of skills they can put in their tool box that they can use when they start innovating new companies, new ideas and new technologies,” Goodgame said. “It’s imperative that we as a state prepare our younger students as they age up and get these skills so we have a talented workforce that understands computer science.”

For Gillian Melendez, a 16-year-old junior-to-be from Xavier College Prep in Coachella Valley, Calif., the International Botball experience provided the opportunity to meet like-minded students from around the world and pursue her interest in software coding.

“I started when I was in 6th grade and I fell in love with it,” Melendez said. “Most girls aren’t into robotics because it’s nerdy, but I fell in love.  I love to code.”

Melendez was one of two girls on the six-person “G-Force” team from Coachilla Valley.

Norman native Braden McDorman is Exhibit A that Botball is an effective strategy for building STEM skills.

Braden McDorman is an entrepreneur who learned coding from his Botball experience

McDorman began competing in Botball in middle school, and today is co-founder and chief technology officer of a robotics software startup called Semio.

“I started Botball in sixth grade at Whittier Middle School and did it all through high school,” McDorman said. “Then I got an internship at KIPR working on software in high school and continued while I was working on my undergraduate degree at OU.”

McDorman’s path took him to the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics in high school and then on to a computer science degree at the University of Oklahoma. He also serves as a KIPR instructor for regional Botball competitions in Southern California, and co-founded Los Angeles-based Semio with another Botball alumnus.

“I’m working on a startup all because of Botball, actually,” McDorman said. “It’s a game that teaches everything you need to know to do real science, real programming. It’s the perfect way to prepare for a career in STEM.”

(Full disclosure: I write about Oklahoma innovation and research and development topics on behalf of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST).