Today's fourth annual White House Science Fair celebrated all different kids from all over the U.S., but it also served as an opportunity to bring to light one of the most disturbing realities this country faces today. As President Obama pointed out, "Right now, fewer than 1 in 5 bachelor's degrees in engineering or computer science are earned by women, and fewer than 3 in 10 workers in science and engineering are women. That means we've got half our team we're not even putting on the field. We've got to change those numbers."
Thankfully, the young female exhibitors who presented their research and achievements in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) at the fair are a reassurance that the tide is turning. Here, six of the brilliant exhibits created by young women who are challenging the idea that excelling in STEM is just for boys ...
- Rare cancer research for a cure - After New Yorker Elana Simon survived a rare liver cancer called fibrolamellar at age 12, she teamed up with one of the surgeons who treated her, worked in a medical lab, and collected data on the illness. She gathered tissue samples from patients coping with the same cancer, performed genomic sequencing tests, and found a common genetic mutation across all of the samples she collected. Now 18 years old, Elana's groundbreaking findings were published in the journal Science and formed a basis for a new website, the Fibrolamellar Registry, which she built with the hopes that other patients coping with the disease would be able to share their medical data for researchers working to find a cure. Elana is empowered to speak with other patients fighting rare diseases and see if they too could benefit from a similar social website. Now (unsurprisingly!) inundated with offers to work in different medical labs, she has opted to go to Harvard to study computer science in the fall.
- Safeguard against concussions - Maria Hanes, a 19-year-old from Santa Cruz, California, wants to be the first female collegiate head football coach, but she's an inventor first and foremost. After dropping her cellphone, protected by a rubber cover, she wondered what material was in helmets to protect football players' heads. And thus, she was inspired to come up with a “concussion cushion,” which President Obama noted could very well be a topic of conversation during his upcoming Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit.
- Search-and-rescue robot - Olivia Van Amsterdam, 16, and Katelyn Sweeney, 17, and their team of student engineers from Natick, Massachusetts, invented a 120-pound remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that can help search-and-rescue dive teams search for bodies in dangerous, icy waters. The girls are currently working to file a U.S. patent application and hope to one day license the technology they've developed. What's more, "when they’re not busy building lifesaving robots, they are also establishing an all-girls robotics team," President Obama pointed out.
- App to help a classmate - Cassandra Baquero, 13, Caitlin Gonzolez, 12, and Janessa Leija, 11, from Los Fresnos, Texas, are part of an all-girl team of app-builders who set out to help their visually impaired classmate Andres Salas navigate his surroundings, specifically his school. The app the girls developed, "Hello Navi," gives verbal directions to help a user find his way from point A to point B based on measurements of a user's stride and digital building blueprints. The team is one of eight to win the recent Verizon Innovative App Challenge and also earned their school a $20K grant from the Verizon Foundation.
- Engineering a high-powered rocket - Rebecca Chapin-Ridgely, 17, Jasmyn Logan, 15, and Nia'mani Robinson, 15, make up an all-girl engineering team from Maryland, which was one of 100 teams that qualified for last year's Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC). They were also one of only nine all-girl teams that qualified for the competition and the only African American all-girl team. Their rocket is designed to launch to an altitude of about 750 feet and then return a "payload" (egg) safely to the ground.
- A "cane" that sees for the visually impaired - Katia Castaneda, a 19-year-old from Oakland, California, says she stepped out of her home one day and noticed a visually-impaired neighbor struggling to make his way down the street. In turn, she came up with an "electronic cane," which senses what is ahead of it using two sonar sensors and can then keep the user safe by issuing a warning. Katia explains she could see the "cane" actually taking the form of a belt or a necklace, so it could be a hands-free device for users. She has had several offers to help her develop and manufacture the product.
What do you think can be done to get more girls working in STEM?
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