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Making Space for Girls: Getting Students Excited about STEM

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Teachers often hear, “Why do I need to know this?” from their students. Although it’s usually coming from a place of frustration rather than inquiry, it’s a fair question. Finding an answer that is satisfactory in my students’ minds can be especially difficult but, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I try my best to find the response that will motivate them. For my students who want to work in STEM, I’ve recently found a stellar way to answer their question.

I am finishing up my second year as a math and physics teacher at an all-girls high school, one of the oldest post-primary educational institutions for girls in Lesotho. As a secondary school education Volunteer, I focus on improving the quality of math and science education in my community.

Recently, I came across an up-and-coming aerospace company whose goal is to make “space” for everyone. They were holding a global competition to host academic and education payloads (the part of a vehicle’s load that brings in revenue, like passengers or cargo), free of charge, on the inaugural flight of their first launch vehicle. The purpose of the competition was to get young people excited about STEM and to answer the “Why do I need to know this math?” question.

I decided I wanted to throw my school’s hat in the ring. My students and I would design and build a full-scale model of a liquid-fueled rocket engine. In our application I mentioned that the girls have a real interest in STEM, but their spark might burn out too soon because they are expected to take on more traditional gender roles like raising a family and doing domestic chores. I sent my proposal, and at the end I wrote, “If the model rocket engine is not able to be included in the payload, we would love to submit a simple 4X6 inch photograph of our Girls Rocket Program team.”

The company responded saying they could not include our model, but they would accept a picture of us!

After this development, I decided to found the Girls Rocket Program, an extracurricular club dedicated to harnessing my students’ energy and curiosity. I spent about a week making a slideshow presentation of rocket science – real rocket science – that included math, chemistry, physics and everything in between.

12th grade students filled the benches in my school’s dining hall while I stood on the stage with my computer connected to the small TV on the wall behind me. I showed them a PowerPoint presentation with everything from party balloons to red fuming nitric acid. I used square roots, algebra, ratios, geometry and several other math concepts as I explained how liquid-fueled rocket engines are designed. My counterpart, Sekake, helped manage and supervise the club.

The question I had heard so much started to transform from “Why do I need to know this?” to “Will I need this to be a (insert profession), too?”

We started building a full-scale model of our rocket out of aluminum cans the next week. After they realized that it wasn’t totally uncool, the girls circled around one-by-one to take turns tracing, cutting and gluing. It didn’t take long to make a shiny aluminum model that stands about one foot tall and four inches in diameter.

I tried to involve the girls who were interested in other subjects as well. One student who likes languages wrote a poem about science exploration that is featured on the back of the picture we sent in. Another girl designed our club logo, and several other girls came up with a paint job for the model.

I am happy and proud to say this experience has helped show these girls that science exploration isn’t just for boys or for people in the U.S. STEM has a real purpose that can positively impact their lives. I am so thankful to the Peace Corps for providing me with this awesome opportunity and I am so proud of my students for giving their all to this project!