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Laura F.

Above: Laura with her display board for a project she did on bacteria and water bottles. Read Laura's story in the Science Buddies in Action area.

Science Buddies is always excited to hear about and share a student's success with a school, home, or science fair project. Our Science Buddies in Action stories acknowledge the hard work students do on their science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) projects and also show teachers, parents, and other students what is possible with student science. Student science is broad, can be driven by individual interests, and can parallel the kinds of projects that are being carried out by scientists today. Volcanoes are fun, but there is so much more that students can do, question, test, and explore with hands-on science.

A few years ago, we shared a story about Laura Fulton, a student who had been curious about what kind of water bottle she should take with her to dance class to get the best protection against bacteria.

Laura's microbiology project was a wonderful example of a student exploring a science question that was related to a passion or hobby. As a dancer, Laura was curious about the water bottle she carried to class—so she turned her interest into a winning science project.

Today, Laura is one of twenty finalists in the Microsoft YouthSpark Challenge for Change global competition. Laura's project for the challenge is called Science for Success, a project through which Laura is working to encourage girls to enjoy science and explore STEM careers.

To see a video summarizing Laura's project and to learn more, visit her project website. Public voting for finalists runs April 15-22.

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LEGO Movie Makes Engineering Awesome


The LEGO® Movie puts engineering on the big screen in the hands of an assortment of plastic master builders and superheroes from various time periods and realms who come together to challenge Lord Business and the superior threat of Kragle. What they engineer in their quest to stop the Kragle will inspire students, teachers, and parents. If you aren't singing the awesome virtues of engineering yet, you should be!

LEGO Movie downloadable social media cover from official site
Note: You can find out more about the movie and watch video trailers on the official LEGO Movie site or on the LEGO site.


If you've seen the LEGO® Movie, then you know, "Everything is awesome. Everything is cool when you're part of a team." And, maybe... everything is awesome when you trust yourself, build what you want, imagine what isn't already written in a manual, and see yourself as special.

With Engineers Week this week, the timing for the smash LEGO Movie feels pretty, well, awesome. The importance of strengthening and encouraging science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education for K-12 students is an important topic of discussion, and on the heels of the great GoldieBlox ad during last month's Super Bowl game, a movie devoted to highlighting what is possible when you celebrate and combine ingenuity, innovation, and the spirit of engineering has all the makings of a blockbuster.

No matter what angle you approach it from, there is something to like in the LEGO Movie, even if a toddler seated behind you stands up the entire movie with his face wedged on the back edge of your seat and babbles throughout. There is something to like even if you think you have a toe a bit too far into teenhood to still play with LEGO. This is a feel-good movie that budding engineers, creative types, parents, kids, vehicle enthusiasts, and all fans of pink unicorn kitties are sure to enjoy.

Maybe you really love the fact that the first master builder who whirls into quick-as-a-flash building view is Wyldstyle, aka Lucy, a perfect big screen moment for inspiring and applauding girls interested in STEM. Maybe you love Batman's wry persona and his comment about building only in black, and sometimes a very, very dark grey. Maybe you like Emmet's morning routines, all by the instruction manual, including some pretty fierce jumping jacks. Maybe you really liked the appearance of a floating, dangling, glowing-eyed, Ghost Vitruvious. Maybe you really liked Benny the astronaut who can snap together a space ship out of whatever parts are on hand. Depending on where you live (or in which realm), maybe you chuckled over the overpriced coffee.

Or maybe you liked the aha moment when you finally realized what the "piece of resistance" really is in the context of the story.

The movie is full of great moments that may strike a chord with viewers of all ages in ways both obvious and subtle. As a parent, I liked the movie on many levels. We have zillions of bricks in the house from years gone by, and I fondly remember our days of "instruction manual" building as well as our days of free-form building. I loved the way master builders in the movie looked around at piles of bricks and pieces and saw, instantly, the different kinds of elements they needed, complete with the LEGO part ID numbers.

Watching the master builders in the movie quickly assess the problem, the moment, the dire necessity, and whip up something amazing from salvaged and reclaimed bricks was very cool. But Emmet's solution for the broken wheel axle during an early wagon escape scene was also right on track for the way engineers think on their feet (or with their heads) as they create and innovate needed solutions. His double-decker couch may have inspired some laughter, but in the end, it helped Emmet and a core group of characters escape, its real functionality emerging as an accidental discovery—something that happens in science and engineering all the time!

Ultimately, throughout the movie, viewers see the engineering design process in action. Things are built and rebuilt over and over and over again—with or without a manual. Engineering is fun and awesome.


Making Connections

If the movie inspired you and your kids and made you think about the buckets, bins, and baskets of LEGO bricks that have wound their way into the basement or storage or a closet, pull them out again and see what happens when you encourage your kids to take a fresh look and think and build beyond the instruction booklet.

The following science project ideas can be turned on their heads to give students new building experiences and challenges:

  • Building the Tallest Tower: this one is a vertical exploration, but what happens if you change the orientation? Or, by all means, build up! What do you need to do to keep climbing higher?
  • Mixing Mystery: Why Does Tumbling Sometimes Separate Mixtures?: use LEGO to build a science tool that can help sort out a mixture. If you love the kinds of ideas you find in a Lego Crazy Action Contraptions-style book, this one might be right up your alley!
  • Gears-Go-Round!: working with gears and understanding the relationship between the number of teeth and a gear's functionality will help students refine their building skills and strengthen their "how will this connect with that" know-how. What are all the ways you can reuse the collection of gears you have?

If your older kids are using LEGO Mindstorms, don't miss the great array of Mindstorms projects in the robotics area at Science Buddies.

Follow these, as written, or use the ideas as starting points for launching your own building projects and engineering or robotics investigations:

(These projects work with older Mindstorms kits or the new EV3 model.)

What you build will be awesome—because you build it!


Science on the Dark Side

Did the Kragle in the movie make your brain buzz? Did you spot the scene at the end where the humans are un-gluing structures that had been super-glued in perfect place? Did you cringe at the sad moment when Good Cop, Bad Cop's good face was wiped clean?

These moments invite all kinds of science questions about glues, adhesives, and solvents. Get started!

LEGO Movie - What will you create, build, engineer, innovate? Get started with Science Buddies

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What can engineers learn from studying the ways in which bugs and insects move? A great deal! Robotics labs like the Harvard Microrobotics Lab are using bio-inspired research and observation to design and test new approaches to designing and building small robots. Meet a female engineer working in the lab. She may not be keen on bees, but when it comes to coin-sized bots, she is excited by the challenge of taking what insects already do well and creating better, faster, and more efficient microrobots.

Dani Robotics Engineer
Above: Dani Ithier, Harvard student and engineer in the Harvard Microrobotics Lab

Flying Smart with Butterfly Wings

Dani's lab is using bio-inspired research to further robotics design and engineering, but other fields, too, study bio-systems to help improve existing systems, technologies, and understanding.

In the "Butterfly Wings: Using Nature to Learn About Flight" aerodynamics project, students make model butterflies to explore how changes in the angle of a butterfly's wing, relative to the wind, changes the lift force of the wing. Insect-inspired research may inform robotics design, but as this project shows, this research can also help address science questions and improve designs in other areas!

Like many kids, Dani Ithier grew up interested in building things. Popular engineering-inspired building and construction systems like LEGO are often a child's first introduction to the world of engineering. These systems provide an accessible, colorful, fun, and extensible platform that invites kids to explore engineering design and encourages troubleshooting and a step-by-step approach—for fun.

Kids who grow up building and tinkering grow up loosely using and enacting principles of the engineering design process. While these systems play a key role in facilitating childhood creativity and innovation, many kids outgrow their interest, snap-together building blocks and circuit kits being replaced by other activities and hobbies. For girls, the drop-off rate in interest in engineering toys may be even more dramatic.

Luckily, there are female engineers like Dani whose interest never wanes. She started out building, and she hasn't stopped yet.


Supporting Student Engineers

Thanks to support from her family, Dani's childhood passion was nurtured and encouraged. Today, she is applying, exploring, and expanding her interest as part of her undergraduate studies at Harvard where she works in the Harvard Microrobotics Lab, an electronics and robotics lab that specializes in research related to microrobots inspired by real-world bugs and insects.

"Growing up, support from family, friends, and teachers really helped me get more involved and excited about engineering and math and science in general," says Dani. "I had always been interested in building things, and my family encouraged me to do so despite the fact that they had no engineering or technical knowledge. They would buy kits for me where I would get to build model engines or play with magnets and circuits, and my uncle would hang out with me on weekends and teach me how to use power tools." In addition to lots of great engineering projects and kits at home, Dani participated in summer programs that let her continue to explore engineering and robotics.

At school, Dani says her teachers helped encourage and feed her interests by giving her extra challenges to work on, by helping as mentors in the after-school robotics program, and by making her aware of opportunities like the BAE System's Women in Technology Program. Dani was fortunate to have strong support, support that extended beyond the boundaries of in-class curriculum. "These opportunities helped compensate for what I saw as a lack of hands-on [science and engineering] activities in classes at school," she recalls. "We had lab periods in school and did several projects, but not nearly the amount I would have hoped for. I think it was really important for me to work on projects out of class to help me learn."


Making Room for Girls in Robotics

Programs and clubs like FIRST® robotics are often integral for students like Dani and help support the engineering spirit during middle and high school years. Dani recalls doing summer programs devoted to LEGO® Mindstorms, but she cites her participation in FIRST robotics as a powerful force in her development as a young engineer. As a young woman, however, her four years in robotics club also highlighted the disproportionate number of girls pursuing engineering by the time high school rolls around.

"There were very few girls on the robotics team I participated on in high school," admits Dani. "Over my four years on the team, only a handful of us actually participated in designing and building the robot." Though she categorizes the gender imbalance as discouraging, her team was fortunate to have a female mentor, which gave her and other teammates a role model and source of inspiration. Even so, "I do wish more women were encouraged to be involved in the sciences and join teams like robotics teams," says Dani.

The relationship between gender and engineering that Dani saw play out in robotics club is something she has continued to see in her college studies. "By looking at the demographics of the classes I'm in, the professors I've had, and the make-up of the engineering-related extracurriculars I'm involved in, I do feel like robotics and mechanical engineering are male-dominated fields. Often, I am one of the few women and people of color in these spaces."

Dani working in HAMR robotics lab
Above: Dani at work filming robotics testing in the lab—under very bright light conditions!

Microrobots to the Rescue

The miniature robots being built and tested in the lab may be used in a range of current and future applications. Search and rescue and exploration of environments unsafe for humans are areas Dani notes are particularly relevant to her lab's research.

"Many lives could be saved in the future," says Dani by way of example, "if, instead of sending humans into dangerous places, such as toxic areas or debris-ridden buildings after natural disasters, robotic bugs were sent instead!"

Students can explore robotics with a search-and-rescue mission in the "Robots to the Rescue! Build & Test a Search-and-Rescue Robot" Project Idea. The robot in the project involves a toy radio-controlled car, so it is many times larger than Dani's robots in the Microrobotics Lab, but the Project Idea lets students get started thinking about and testing important issues related to using robots in this way.

Given the numbers, finding female mentors and teachers becomes even more important for young female engineers. "I have found numerous amazing mentors I identify with who have advised me and made my experiences much more positive," says Dani. She also says she feels like she is seeing a change, an upward trend in the number of girls who are interested in engineering fields. This may be due to increased attention to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and, specifically, the desire to engage more girls in STEM.

"While things are getting better, I think these fields have a long way to come in terms of gender, racial, and class balance and that awareness of this and outreach are important steps to start changing this."


Inspired by Insects

Dani isn't a fan of cockroaches or bees and says she really would not want to work on projects that involve handling or close observation of either. But, in fact, Dani's work at Harvard centers on the design and development of robotic insects, robots inspired by the biology of other creatures. "Our lab models much of our work off of organisms and structures that already exist in nature. Why try to recreate the wheel when you can look at something that works amazingly (which so many things in nature already do) and mimic it to obtain good results," Dani explains. "Plus, it's fun to work with bugs and try to learn from them!"

Taking their cue from nature, Dani explains that research teams in the lab are working on both flapping-wing and ambulatory microrobots—bugs that fly and bugs that crawl. Both approaches to mobilizing a robot have different challenges. "Because both types are on extremely small scales (about the size of a quarter or smaller), mass is a huge issue," says Dani.

"Ambulatory robots need to remain light so that their transmissions are able to provide enough force for the robot's legs to lift the body's mass," explains Dani. "Flapping-wing robots need to remain even lighter so that they are still able to fly. This makes it difficult to put power supplies on board (batteries are heavy!)." Flapping-wing robots also present challenges for navigation and orientation systems, notes Dani. Flying bots have "lots of complicated control and sensor challenges because the robot needs to know its orientation in air so that it can continue flying under control."

Though cockroaches are not her thing, Dani has been working on a current version of the Harvard Ambulatory MicroRobot (HAMR) that models the design of a cockroach and is about the size of a quarter. Having worked on both ambulatory and flapping-wing robotics projects, Dani says she especially enjoys exploring the kinds of design issues and questions raised by ambulatory robots.

"I think I prefer ambulatory robots because I'm not particularly interested in fluid dynamics or control, which is what a lot of the work on flapping robots is. Rather, I like thinking about the dynamics and locomotion of ambulatory robots. For example, how does the leg gait affect how the robot moves, what kind of leg designs will allow the robot to climb walls, will changing leg materials increase speed?"

In addition to tackling challenges related to the physics and engineering of ambulatory microrobots, Dani says size is always an added variable and consideration. "It is hard to put things in the right place at that scale!"

The size may make building these robots a challenge, but it also makes things interesting when it comes to keeping track of them. With robots the size of a coin, it seems inevitable that they might wander or scuttle away, out of sight, or under something, never to be found again. But Dani says it hasn't happened. "Fortunately we have not lost any bots so far! It can be difficult though," she admits. But what do engineers do when things are difficult? They find solutions!

"With the ambulatory robots I'm currently working on, we put up little 'guard-rails' on the table that it walks on for experiments to make sure that it doesn't run off," explains Dani. "We also are pretty careful about keeping track of the robots when we are done using them and putting them in the drawer we keep them in."

To further help them keep track, Dani says the engineers give the robots names. "Currently we have Elle, Manny, and Actin."

Once they have a name, they are less likely to get overlooked during a daily robot roll call!

HAMR Micro Robots
Above: samples from HAMR research and development. Image: Courtesy, Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory. To see HAMR robots in action, watch this video.


Supporting Student Interest in Engineering, Robotics, and Computer Science

February 16-24, 2014 is Engineers Week, and February 20 is Girl Day (formerly "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day").

Help excite your students—male and female—about engineering and introduce them to what engineering means and what engineers do. Students like Dani are quick to credit the support of teachers, family, and programs that help enable student exploration. The following resources contain ideas, projects, and links that can help kickstart student interest and exploration—you don't have to be an engineer, a programmer, or a robot designer to help your students pursue their own interest!



Science Buddies Project Ideas in Robotics are supported by Symantec.

Motorola Solutions Foundation, a sponsor of Engineers Week, is a supporting sponsor of Science Buddies.

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If you were watching the Super Bowl on Sunday with an eye especially tuned to the ads, you were not alone. Super Bowl Sunday is big business for advertisers. Chips. Beverages. Condiments. Cars. More cars. You might see ads for all of these in 30-90 second spots between turnovers. But this year, you also saw the promise and potential of a future generation of girl engineers.

Above: GoldieBlox's 2014 Super Bowl Sunday ad.

As a result of the "Small Business Big Game" contest sponsored by Intuit, GoldieBlox won an all-paid ticket this year to Super Bowl advertising history. The fledgling, Kickstarter-backed company scored big on Sunday as the first small business to have airtime during the Super Bowl. With a hefty price tag for a few seconds of face time with the millions of eyeballs glued to the set throughout the game and during the half-time show, Super Bowl Sunday tends to be an all-pro game. Like the Goldilocks character the company's name brings to mind, GoldieBlox got a chance yesterday to try out the big field and maybe make a game-changing play for girls and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

"Construction toys get kids interested in math and science and help develop spatial skills," says Debbie Sterling, founder and CEO of GoldieBlox. "We don't have a national shortage of princesses," she continues, countering that "only 11% of engineers in the U.S. are women, and this is a problem." To tackle this shortage and the gender imbalance in STEM fields, and to make engineering something that isn't automatically perceived as a boy's club, GoldieBlox is setting out to show that girls are "more" than just princess material—and that princesses can, absolutely, be engineers.


Making the Play

Helping feed and enable girls' interest in engineering, the GoldieBlox line of integrated engineering and storytelling products aims to inject the princess aisle in the toy store with a much-needed boost of STEM. But GoldieBlox's Super Bowl ad didn't really focus on their product. The girls in the ad are not sitting around after having a miniature tea party with a bunch of stuffed animals and building pastel-colored dioramas or dollhouse furniture. Instead, to the beat of a Quiet Riot parody, the girls build a rocket and blast a bunch of their "girly" toys (including a bunch of stuffed animals) to space (or at least "out of the park").

The thirty-second ad is largely conceptual, but the engineering is there, as are the GoldieBlox components. To get a toy rocking horse out of an upstairs window, a few girls use an ingenious pulley system. Take a closer look. Pause the video at about three seconds. What do you see? The girls have rigged a purple bicycle as part of their system. Next up, girls attach a skateboard to a bike to help them move an oversized dollhouse as they run and ride to the rendezvous point with masses of other girls (all with their own toys) singing "Come on ditch your toys. Girls make some noise. More than pink, pink, pink, we want to think."

In the final seconds of the ad, the rocket is blasted into space by a girl who, from a safe distance away (smart!), uses a plunger-style mechanism built from GoldieBlox elements to initiate liftoff. It's a great, if fleeting, integration of the product in the commercial.

What's going on between the lines of the ad? The girls' parody of Quiet Riot's lyrics help spell it out, but you don't have to look far into the commercial to realize there are no adults on hand helping pull off this goodbye party, rocket building, and launch. You don't have to dig too deep to see what they are putting on that rocket and casting aside. These girls combined mechanical and engineering skills with innovation and creativity to make a bold statement about what they are being "given" and what they "want."


Another Classic GoldieBlox Video

A GoldieBlox video last year used a parody of a Beastie Boys song as backtrack for a group of girls who, bored with the TV lineup and a room of pink toys, design, build, and activate an amazing Rube Goldberg contraption. The video has since been edited to remove the backtrack, but even without a modern spin on the Beastie Boys' "Girls," the video is a compelling look at the issue of toys and entertainment marketed to girls, and the ways in which engineering is presented (or not) for girls starting at a young age.



Above: a previous GoldieBlox video that made the rounds on the Internet.


Engineering for Fun

A Rube Goldberg machine is a machine that is designed to do a simple task, but it does so through a series of complicated, interrelated, and interdependent movements and exchanges between ordinary objects. The classic Mouse Trap game is a familiar example of a very simple (and contained) Rube Goldberg-style machine. This Wikipedia description of the "mouse trap" in the game walks through the steps of the chain reaction. If all goes as planned,

"the player turns the crank, which rotates a vertical gear, connected to a horizontal gear. As that gear turns, it pushes an elastic-loaded lever until it snaps back in place, hitting a swinging boot. This causes the boot to kick over a bucket, sending a marble down a zig-zagging incline (the "rickety stairs") which feeds into a chute. This leads the marble to hit a vertical pole, at the top of which is an open hand, palm-up, which is supporting [another marble]. The movement of the pole knocks the ball free to fall through a hole in its platform into a bathtub, and then through a hole in the tub onto one end of a seesaw. This launches a diver on the other end into a tub which is on the same base as the barbed pole supporting the mouse cage. The movement of the tub shakes the cage free from the top of the pole and allows it to fall."

If everything works correctly, if the contraption is set right and operates without any unexpected hiccups or misfires, the mouse is trapped in the cage, and the player who triggered the "mouse trap" machine wins. In the GoldieBlox video, the girls start out staring at a swathe of pink programming on TV. Frustrated, they get out their tools, and they take care of business. They create a machine to turn off the TV. They don't just get up, walk the few feet to the TV, and press the knob. Instead, they turn their "need" into an opportunity to innovate, engineer, build, and have fun.


Put it in Action

If you saw Sunday's GoldieBlox ad—with or without your kids—and you got inspired about girls and engineering, then it's time to get creative! As the earlier video shows, there is a lot of brilliant engineering at play in a fun and unexpected Rube Goldberg machine built from ordinary materials. Build a machine with your kids? Or suggest that they design one? Exactly!

A Rube Goldberg design can be amazingly complex in design, timing, and detail, but it is a simple machine made of many individual parts. Watching one play out can be inspiring and exciting, but can you and your kids make one? You and your students? You? Yes!

To learn more about the engineering and science involved in a Rube Goldberg design, check the following projects:


The above projects won't walk you through setting up a specific Rube Goldberg machine, but they do, taken together, offer insight into the toolbox of engineering and science principles needed to design a successful, jaw-dropping, high-five-worthy chain reaction. The more you know about simple machines, gears, torque, trajectory, force, potential and kinetic energy, gravity, pull-back and launch angles, velocity, and motion, the better you will be able to design, troubleshoot, and engineer your contraption.

Engineer and Innovator's Tools, Toolbox, and Principles of Mechanical Engineering and Science


To get started, figure out what you want to accomplish, and then start scavenging materials from around the house (be sure to check the toy box and the junk drawer). Pool together as many items as you can that might help you move your chain reaction from start to end point. Then start hooking them together in a series of reactions.

We would love to see what you come up with!


More Girls and STEM from the Science Buddies Blog


Stay tuned! Introduce a Girl to Engineering day is coming up, February 20, 2014, part of DiscoverE's Engineers Week.




Motorola Solutions Foundation is a supporting sponsor of Science Buddies.


Motorola Solutions Foundation

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Stories about Mary Barra have the potential to empower, encourage, and inspire students of all ages as she takes on a very visible and important leadership role in the automotive industry. As Barra shows, even something as simple as making paper boats can make a difference in how students (or adults) perceive science and engineering—and maybe in how a company performs!

Mary Barra, GM Senior Vice President with students from Bates Academy
Mary Barra, new CEO of GM, leads the GM "A World in Motion" skimmer boat in Bates Academy student competition last year. Image: © General Motors.

The weeks leading up to the start of Mary Barra's reign as CEO of General Motors (GM) have sent ripples of excitement and inspiration through all kinds of media corners, from those who cover the glass ceiling, to those who see Barra's rise as a wonderful tribute to hard work and company loyalty, to those who simply love cars, to those who see in Barra a role model for female engineers and scientists of all ages. Indeed, since the December announcement that Barra would be handed the keys and become GM's new CEO upon the retirement of Dan Akerson this month, the media has been buzzing with stories about Barra, a Michigan native, who started at GM as a teenager, who really wanted a fancy sports car for her first car but bought something more practical in order to be able to afford college, and who has risen, quietly, to the top of a global auto manufacturing company that has been on a successful rebound since its financial troubles in 2009.

Though Barra has carefully sidestepped many gender-specific questions, it is clear that, just by being who she is and where she is, she is poised to become a powerful role model for young engineers, especially for young women. With the status of "girls in science, technology, engineering, and math" (STEM) frequently under the media microscope and a concern for teachers, parents, and community leaders, Barra's history, educational background, and new position in the world of automobile engineering offers a wonderful beacon of possibility. To girls who love cars, who love engineering, or who love any STEM subject that is frequently viewed as "for boys," Barra's story offers inspiration and a reminder that doing what you love is what matters.


The Engineering Design Process

In reports and interviews this week surrounding the Detroit Auto Show where she unveiled the 2015 GMC Canyon, Barra has talked about teamwork and about collaboration, ideals and practices that may prove to be cornerstones of her strategy leading GM. While these qualities could be highlighted to smooth the transition into her new role, it seems they are not new catchphrases for Barra but are, instead, central to her style, vision, and approach.

A team-building activity she spearheaded last year at GM showcases Barra's emphasis on teamwork, collaboration, and on the engineering design process—Barra orchestrated a "paper sailboat challenge" for more than 200 GM engineers and designers.

While team-building exercises and activities are common in big business, Barra's paper sailboat challenge stands out for its novelty, for the simplicity of getting everyone involved in doing something that might feel a bit silly but showcases the fun in the process, and for the simple fact that the event has its roots in an activity she did with third grade students as community outreach at a local school.

At Bates Academy in Detroit, Barra and other members of her team got hands-on with a group of students in a "skimmer" competition where they created boats and then raced them across hard floors (not water) using fans to simulate the necessary winds. This kind of community STEM event is wonderful for students and helps to show students that science, technology, math, and engineering can be fun, that the steps of the engineering design process are accessible, and that even small changes can bring innovation and, maybe, a winning new design—or the fastest skimmer.

We love the story of the paper sailboat challenge and its skimmer origins with Detroit students. We love the photos and video of Barra and her team working side-by-side with the kids. And who can help but love the "C'mon, mama needs a new pair of shoes!" comment from one of the enthusiastic participants?


Getting Involved

Creating opportunities for hands-on science and engineering at a local school is a great way to contribute to science education and to help show both girls and boys that science and engineering is fun, exciting, and offers many different paths for the future. If the story of Barra and her paper boats inspires you, and you are wondering how you might create a similar kind of activity either for students at a local school or with a group of kids at home, take a look at these hands-on science projects, all of which are ideas that could be transformed into a fun class or group activity or competition:

Prefer dry ground? There is no need to stop with boats. Paper airplanes, hovercraft, and marble runs make great hands-on engineering activities for students, too:


Real People, Real STEM Inspiration

For more stories about volunteers helping create hands-on science and engineering opportunities in classrooms, schools, and programs in their communities, and for additional stories about encouraging girls in STEM, see the following posts on the Science Buddies Blog:


More Information

To learn more about Mary Barra, see:

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The story of the next General Motors CEO may help change ideas about car engineering and gender and inspire future generations of female engineers.

Mary Barra takes over as CEO of GM / inspiring girls in science and engineering
Photo: John F. Martin for General Motors
What happens when a girl grows up loving to build, design, engineer, tinker, solve, create, and improve upon what's "out there"? What happens when a girl who loves those things gets encouragement, opportunity, and education that supports her interests? She might just take over as chief executive officer of a major company, just like Mary Barra is preparing to do at General Motors (GM) where she will lead the company and its more than 200,000 employees worldwide.

A recent writeup in the Buffalo News notes that Barra, who grew up in a Detroit suburb, "remembers pining as a 10-year-old for her cousin's red Camaro convertible and tinkering in the garage with her father, a die maker who spent four decades at GM."

Following in her father's footsteps, Barra started at GM while in college and has been there for thirty-three years. You (and your students) can read more about Barra, her history as an engineer, and the recent announcement that former CEO Dan Akerson is handing over the reins to GM in stories at Forbes, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and in this Stanford Alumni profile (Barra attended Stanford Graduate School of Business).


Engineering Keys to the Castle

Barra's interest in cars started with her early love of a shiny red Camaro, and when you read through the many news stories about Barra's recent appointment as CEO (see links above to get started), you will see recounted the dilemma she faced when buying her first car in the 70s—and what she chose instead of the Pontiac Firebird she wanted. Barra's love of cars was not only about exteriors, however. She was also interested in the nitty-gritty of engineering, and Barra has talked about the importance of her mother's support of her interest in science and math—even though these were not areas of expertise for her mother.


Support for Girls in Engineering

At Science Buddies, we encourage you to nurture your student's interest in engineering at every age and stage, and we frequently post information designed to help parents and teachers find and facilitate exciting and inspiring science, technology, engineering, and math moments for their students.

For female students, this can be especially important as early interests may sometimes falter in the face of stereotypes about gender and science and engineering careers. See "Exciting Girls about Science and Engineering" and "Encouraging and Inspiring Female Student Engineers" for more information and links to related Science Buddies content.


Making Connections

If Barra's story inspires your family's dinner or New Year's discussions, or if you have a student who really grooves on cars, auto racing, the way gears go together in a toy kit, or how future design and innovation will need to be more and more fuel-aware and fuel-efficient, consider the following Project Ideas:


Careers in Engineering

For more information about careers related to engineering and automobile design and
manufacturing, see the following science career profiles:


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With its broad spectrum of free scientist-authored projects for K-12 students, Science Buddies wants ALL students to have a great science project experience—girls and boys. For teachers and parents looking for ways to engage girls in science, Science Buddies has plenty of suggestions. Finding a great project that taps an area of interest is one of the most important things to keep in mind when helping students select projects.

Girls and STEM: Better Understanding the 'Leaky Pipeline'

With support from Motorola Solutions Foundation, TrueChild is digging into issues related to STEM, gender, race, and ethnicity. See their STEM white paper report "Do Internalized Feminine Norms Depress Girls' STEM Attitudes & Participation?" for a summary of what's at stake, what's happening, and what TrueChild is learning from focus group studies they are conducting. According to TrueChild's research, girls may feel they have to choose between "femininity and STEM." See TrueChild's "Femininity & Science, Technology, Engineering, Math" section for links to other relevant studies and reports.

How to engage, excite, and retain girls' interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is an ongoing challenge and area of concern for educators and parents. Plenty of studies demonstrate that while many girls show enthusiasm for STEM subjects, and may voice STEM-related career goals, during early elementary years, there is a marked drop-off in interest in STEM that begins as early as grade 4 or 5 and continues to taper off through middle and high school. (Similar decline in interest in STEM subjects can also be seen in students in other demographics.)

Understanding "why" girls lose interest in areas of science and changing the dynamic has become a top priority for many who are involved in science education and, ultimately, ensuring a healthy pipeline between formative school years and the emerging job force.


Why Not Science?

The problem of "girls bailing on science" is not one with immediate and concrete answers as the convergence of a number of factors has likely contributed to what has become a broad-spectrum problem. There are no easy answers, but there are myriad steps that may help encourage and recoup female student interest. Increasing the visibility of female role models in science and in fields like robotics, engineering, and computer science, fields often associated with males, is certainly important. Girls looking to those fields need to find plenty of examples of female scientists to help them better envision both the field and their own potential place in such a field of work and study. Ensuring girls have access to (and encouragement for) a wide range of science-related opportunities both in school and through extracurricular and after-school activities is also important. Making clear to all students, through presentation, through teaching, through example, and through at-home discussion, that there are no "boy" and "girl" fields of science is a must. The stereotypes that surround certain fields of science, and the ways in which developing students respond to those stereotypes, may have much to do with the kinds of projects girls choose for their science class and science fair assignments.

These are all important steps, but they are only individual strands that feed into a complicated and multi-headed problem. No single approach can realign girls' perception of science, and change won't happen overnight. Rebalancing STEM so that girls see these fields as interesting, exciting, and viable, as relevant and possible for them, may take the proverbial village, but it also is going to take a lot of diligent and hard work on the part of teachers, parents, community members, and volunteers who are all committed to getting girls excited about science and to helping girls see that they, too, can be scientists and that there are many, many different areas of science to explore.


Finding a Science Project

So how do you get a girl student engaged in a hands-on science assignment, project, or activity? What project should you encourage? What project should she pick? The answer may be more simple than you think. She should pick a project that interests her or that taps into an area of interest.

At Science Buddies, we believe that all students, male or female, can perform any of the Project Ideas in our library of more than 1,200 free science projects when the project is appropriate for the student in terms of difficulty and available time. This is especially true if the project is one in which a student is interested.


A Project She will Love

This focus on the importance of student interest is the foundation on which Science Buddies' Topic Selection Wizard operates. After a student responds to statements about his or her interests in the Wizard's survey, projects that best fit the student's existing interests rise to the top as recommendations for projects the student may most enjoy. This does not mean there are not other projects that the student might find satisfying, challenging, and exciting. But students who use the Topic Selection Wizard are more likely to uncover and discover projects that really mesh with their interests—even in areas of science they may not have considered but that fit in, nicely, with an interest or hobby. We always encourage students to try the Topic Selection Wizard as a first step in locating a science project.

Some girls, of course, will gravitate to Project Ideas that center around subjects and topics that may typically be associated with girls. That's fine! Science Buddies offers a broad range of projects and experiments that meet that need. But many female students, based on their individual areas of interest, will find exciting and challenging projects that may capitalize upon their interests and skills and may open up areas of science, technology, engineering, or math that are unexpected or new to them but that they will really enjoy.


A Handy List of Girl-friendly Science Projects

We could post a list of projects that we know from experience are especially easy for girls to see and choose, but we feel strongly that in order to help change the dynamic, we want, always, to support the fact that the awesome new projects we are developing at Science Buddies are put together by our team of scientists to encourage an amazing science experience for a student—regardless of whether the student is male or female. Here are a few of our recently released Project Ideas that we think are super fun, exciting, creative, and have the potential to empower both girls and boys to further explore science and engineering.

Girls STEM explore blood clotting Girls STEM art bot robotics Girls STEM separating mixtures

Girls STEM candy chromatography Girls STEM grape soda dye Girls STEM electric play-dough

Girls STEM candy waterfall flow Girls STEM snow globe centrifuge Girls STEM milk plastic polymers

Girls STEM butterfly flight Girls STEM dance glove Girls STEM hula hoop physics



The Project Ideas shown above are just a tiny sampling of the wide range of projects students will find at Science Buddies (more than 1,200 projects in more than 30 areas of science). We encourage teachers and parents to have students first try the Topic Selection Wizard. (Sit with your student and look through the results together!) If a student is still uncertain about which project to choose, spend time looking though the library of Project Ideas, starting first with an area of science in which the student seems interested.


Supporting the Process

Parents and teachers play a critical role in how girls perceive and respond to science. Making science a part of the daily car ride or family dinner is an easy but important way to show girls that science matters and is relevant to them. We suggest parents and educators review the following resources, success stories, science history notes, and book reviews for additional encouragement and support in helping engage girls of all ages in science:


Keep in mind, too, that how parents talk about and respond to issues of science, technology, engineering, and math has an impact on students. There are many, many ways you can do hands-on science with your kids at home, after school, or on the weekends even if you are not a scientist. Family science should be fun! We highlight a family-friendly science activity every Thursday on the Science Buddies Blog. But we also frequently post stories of families who have tackled various kinds of science projects, including math, electronics, and robotics—with no prior experience!




Motorola Solutions Foundation is a supporting sponsor of Science Buddies.


Motorola Solutions Foundation

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The desire to invent, innovate, tinker, make and build is not something limited to boys or girls, but that has not always been the case. This picture book story, based on the life of Margaret E. Knight, a female inventor and holder of one of the first patents issued to a woman in the U.S., paints a wonderful picture of a female engineer.


Empowering Future Female Engineers by Example

Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor is a great and very well-crafted story about Margaret E. Knight, a woman who began inventing things at a young age and went on to file many patents for her innovation designs and solutions! The image below is a sketch filed with Margaret's patent for her paper bag-making machine.
2013-blog-patent-sketch-200px.png
What do you know about the history of paper bags? Maybe not so much. Have you ever thought about how bags are mass-produced? About how a machine spits out zillions of bags over time? About the fact that before there was a machine, there was someone with a pencil, some paper, and an idea for that machine?


In the case of paper bags, the "box"-bottomed bags familiar to us are the result of engineers improving upon paper bags that had to be held open to be filled. Bags that stand open are much easier to use, and the story of the race to develop a machine to mass-produce those bags intersects with the story of a female inventor and engineer, the story of Margaret E. Knight.


Growing Up During the Industrial Revolution

I had never heard of Margaret E. Knight when I first picked up Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor, and at first glance, with its soft, almost vintage watercolor illustration, I wasn't sure this book would make my list. You know what they say about judging a book by its cover. I was very, very wrong and am very, very glad I have now read this book, know the story of Margaret E. Knight, and have added another wonderful title to my virtual shelf of "women in science" books for girls.

This is a fantastic picture book for introducing girls to the world of engineering and to a fairly obscure woman in science history. Written and beautifully illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, the book does an excellent job weaving documented biographical details into an illuminating and inspiring story of a female inventor in the mid-20th century.

Born in 1938, Margaret was, according to McCully's story, an inventor from an early age. She lives with her mother and two brothers, and though the family is poor, "Mattie didn't feel poor. She had her father's toolbox."

Her father's toolbox.

With this introduction, the stones are cast. The author immediately signals that this is not a typical story of a typical girl from the mid-1900s. This is the story, from page one, of a girl who keeps a notebook of her ideas and sketches—her inventions. This is the story of a girl who uses her engineering mind to devise all kinds of wonderful solutions for her family, including toys for her brothers, an admirable kite, and a sled that is so successful on the winter hills and so popular with neighborhood kids that she makes and sells them for a quarter each.


The Engineering Design Process in Action

Mattie's life is not easy. When Mattie is twelve, she goes to work in the mills in New York. She works long and hard factory days, and yet the story focuses not on her hardship but instead on Mattie's perseverance, her optimism, and her persistent interest in machinery, engineering, and innovation.

An accident one day in the mill injures a worker. Faced with a problem (a shuttle flew off of a machine and hit someone in the head), Mattie thinks through the way the machine is supposed to work, what happened, and why. By approaching the problem analytically, she resolves to find a solution, something that could be used as a safety device to keep shuttles from flying off of looms when a thread breaks. And she succeeds. "A machine was an invention and could always be improved," the story tells readers.

McCully's attention to details supporting Mattie as an engineer are evident throughout the book and do a wonderful job highlighting steps of the engineering design process. A successful invention often involves numerous prototypes and lots of trial and error. When Mattie's kite is mentioned, readers are told that Mattie first sketched out various designs, picked the one she thought would work best, and made it. The emphasis on the iterative cycle of engineering design appears again and again throughout the story as Mattie works on a design, tests it, troubleshoots, and builds again. Readers see this same process again later when Mattie is developing her paper bag machine.

At eighteen, Mattie leaves home to work in other factories. She ends up working in a factory that makes paper bags, an early version. The race was on, however, for the development of an improved method. The story that unfolds is a story of an engineering design process that took many years, a great deal of ingenuity, and even more perseverance as Mattie fights to defend her design and claim to a patent in court.


One to Share and Talk About

Margaret Knight received more than twenty patents and developed many more original inventions. Posthumously, she was inducted into the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. McCully's story fills in and fleshes out the story of this woman in science history, giving new life and color to someone who might otherwise remain largely overlooked.

That Mattie's design sketchbooks play a big part in her story is a reminder to young engineers about the value of record keeping and the role and importance of keeping a design notebook. McCully's watercolor illustrations are beautifully balanced, throughout the book, with sketchbook engineering designs. As a supplement to the book, readers and families can look online at some of the sketches from Margaret's patents.

Mattie's story is one to read with all of your children—girls and boys alike. The story of a girl and then woman who was an engineer during when many people didn't believe women could be engineers is important. We live in a different world today, but kids need to know, at all ages, that a toolbox can be a treasure trove of inspiration and invention for both boys and girls.

Machines are still machines, and they can always be improved upon.


More Science and Engineering for Girls

If you are looking for another excellent book on girls and engineering, be sure and take a look at Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women. See oiur blog coverage of it in the "Encouraging and Inspiring Female Student Engineers" post.

See also: "Sparking Interest in Science and Science History for the Read Aloud Crowd" and "Calling Naturalists of All Ages: Citizen Science Projects for the Whole Family."

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Science History: Mary Anning


Born on May 21, 1799: Mary Anning, fossil collector who found her first complete skeleton, an ichthyosaur, as a young girl in Lyme Regis. What "type" of fossils did Mary Anning find—and why? In the new "Fantastic Fossilization! Discover the Conditions For Creating the Best Cast Fossils" geology Project Idea, students learn about four types of fossils and get hands-on making cast fossils in different kinds of soil.

Fossils and the possibility of finding something prehistoric encased in soil or rock may excite students of all ages (and from an early age!). Whether your student's interest in fossils and paleontology and archaeology stems from a passion for dinosaurs or as an offshoot of fascination with King Tutankhamun, Mary Anning, as a female fossil hunter, is a great person in science history for students to know about. Introduce students to Mary Anning's story—and the world of fossils and paleontology— with books like these, many of which may be available at your school or local library:

Looking for books for older or adult readers? Consider The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (Macmillan Science) (biography) or Tracy Chevalier's New York Times bestseller, Remarkable Creatures: A Novel (fictionalized account).


Hands-on Fossil Exploration

The new hands-on "Fantastic Fossilization! Discover the Conditions For Creating the Best Cast Fossils" geology project lets students explore "cast" fossils. Cast fossils are one of four types of fossils. As students will discover by doing the science experiment and making their own cast fossils using shells and plaster of Paris, certain types of soil are more suitable for preserving cast fossils than others. In addition to offering an excellent independent science project, this idea can be great for classes or family exploration!

Making Science Connections

Our "today in Science History" posts make students, teachers, and parents aware of important discoveries and scientists in history and help connect science history to hands-on K-12 science exploration that students (and families) can do today. To follow along, join us at Facebook or at Google+. These frequent science history tidbits can be great for class, dinner, or car-ride discussion!

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