Mountainair Elementary's 60 girls join STEM Lego program

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For the next month, all 60 girls in Mountainair Elementary School will build simple machines, conduct experiments and create robots, and it will all be done with Legos.

The school is the third in the state to participate in the STEM Lego program, encouraging girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The Girl Scouts of New Mexico Trails developed the six-week program through the Generation STEM initiative in Bernalillo, Sandoval, Torrance and Valencia counties.

"We focus on girls because studies have shown that, if they're pulled from the general environment and put in a safe girls-only environment, all their inhibitions fade away," said Amanda Lujan, the STEM program manager.

The Girl Scout Research Institute found that, although the majority of girls have an interest in science and math, they don't prioritize the fields when thinking of future careers. According to "Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math," 57 percent of girls studied said they would have to work harder than their male counterparts to be taken seriously in STEM careers.

"Despite having the same ability and skills as boys, girls tend to lose interest and confidence in late elementary school," Lujan said.

When Lujan, who grew up in Estancia, contacted Mountainair Elementary School principal Janna Crow about STEM, Crow jumped at the opportunity.

"It's hard to get people to come to rural communities," she said. "I felt so blessed when I received her email. People keep coming back to give to the community and I'm taking advantage of everything that comes our way."

Crow consulted with teachers and staff, and, met with unanimous support, implemented the program during the school day. Girls in kindergarten and first grade meet for 35 minutes, while the rest of the grades meet for 45 minutes. During this period, boys remain in the classroom to work on other subject matters.

While boys and girls show equal proficiency in math and science at Mountainair Elementary School, Crow said it's really important to provide these opportunities for the girls. She has not heard complaints from parents of male students.

Fifth-grader Aliyah Contreras describes herself as a "Lego freak" and said she really enjoyed learning how to build a motorized airplane with the help of computerized instructions.

"You learn how to program it and then you get to attach parts to it to make it move," she said.

The program is grant-funded by Intel Foundation, RGK Foundation, Sandia National Labs and Lockheed Martin, United Way of Central New Mexico and BBVA Compass Foundation. Lujan said the six-week program cost close to $7,000, including supply costs and instructor wages. Grants for the program also cover the cost of membership to the Girl Scouts of America, allowing the girls to attend camps and other events.