Interview with Kira Buttrey

Posted Thursday, March 1, 2018 at 11:12 AM

Associate Program Officer, National Academy of Engineering

"As a high school junior interested in engineering Kira completed a Girl Scout Gold Award project in which she created lesson and activity plans related to engineering and led workshops with girls (grades 4-6) at a local elementary school. The workshops are interactive and encouraging, and introduce diverse female role models in engineering."

Interview with Kira Buttrey

PostedWednesday, March 7, 2018 at 12:24 PM

Interview with Kira Buttrey

As a high school junior interested in engineering Kira Buttrey completed a Girl Scout Gold Award project in which she created lesson and activity plans related to engineering and led workshops with girls (grades 4-6) at a local elementary school. The workshops are interactive and encouraging and introduce diverse female role models in engineering. On top of creating a great program for girls in her community, Kira developed her own leadership and engineering skills in the process.  Her story provides a wonderful example of how high school students can make a difference.

We interviewed Kira on June 18, 2017 to find out more about how she approached this project.

What got you interested in doing an outreach for younger girls?

Kira: I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment that allowed me to develop a love of STEM, especially engineering, from a young age. As I moved through high school, I began to see the gender ratio in the higher-level engineering and physics courses I loved extremely skewed. This led me to research why women are still underrepresented in engineering, which in turn inspired me to pursue my Girl Scout Gold Award to help combat the root causes. Through researching, I came to believe that these root causes included a lack of positive female role models, negative stereotypes in the media, and expectations that girls will be neat and quiet children. I was interested in working with younger girls because they likely have not been very exposed to engineering yet. This meant the opportunity to introduce engineering in a fun and encouraging environment so that the girls built confidence and interest early on.

What did you ultimately do?

Kira: The engineering workshops I developed and presented at a local elementary school put great emphasis on creativity, working hard, and learning from (not fearing!) mistakes. Each workshop began with a lesson consisting of a PowerPoint about engineering and famous women engineers. The day’s engineering challenge (like an egg drop) was then explained, and the girls were put into small groups. During the engineering challenge, the high school girls made sure that each younger girl was having her voice heard and working together with her team. Finally, each girl presented part of her group’s end result and described the process they took to get there.

How did you go about picking the school and finding the girls club and sponsor where you could plug in?

Kira: I chose to work with an elementary school from my area which serves a low-income, mainly Hispanic population and has very low standardized test scores. I chose this school in particular because minority girls and women are especially underrepresented in engineering. After deciding that I wanted to work with this school, I called the office, explained my motivations and desire to work with their girls, and was referred to a guidance counselor within the school. This guidance counselor runs a Girl’s Club for developing confidence in young girls who are tagged as at-risk for later dropping out of high school. The school was enthusiastic to bring me in and learning about engineering helped the girls gain additional confidence.

What types of things did you need to do (paperwork, etc.) in preparation for your program?

Kira: One of the great advantages of using an already existing girls’ club was that no additional paperwork was needed from the girls’ parents. I communicated with the counselor who sponsored the club a few weeks before each workshop and was pretty much good to go after that. Depending on the setting of the workshop, some extra time should be given upon arriving to figure out checking into the school.

What did you do with the girls once you were able to meet with them?

Kira: The first workshop began with a short questionnaire for each girl about her interest in math, science, and “art or making things”. The questionnaire also asked the girls to write what they knew about engineering, if anything, and if they were potentially interested in engineering. This questionnaire was used to both evaluate the base knowledge the girls had about engineering and to later track the effects of the workshops.

Once the questionnaires were complete, a circle was formed with the younger girls and high school girls to introduce everyone. The younger girls said their name and something about their day, and the older girls talked for a minute or two about what engineering projects they had done and what interested them about engineering. The day’s lesson was then presented, in my case using a PowerPoint. During the lesson, the girls were taught about what engineering is, the wide variety of careers that fall under “engineering,” and who some famous women engineers are. The lesson, like the workshop as a whole, stressed the importance of hard work, confidence, creativity, and resilience. I made sure to keep the lesson interesting and interactive. For example, before diving into an explanation about what biomedical engineering is, I facilitated a discussion within the group about the girls’ thoughts on what biomedical engineering could include. I encouraged the girls’ ideas, and they became increasingly eager to think creatively about how engineering can help in different aspects of life.

After the lesson came the engineering challenge. The girls were put into groups of about three and told to listen to each other’s ideas throughout, like they had learned engineers do. The first day’s design challenge was the classic egg-drop, for which the girls were given newspaper, straws, cotton balls, tape, Dixie cups, and string. The high school girls floated around groups to make sure each of the younger girls was having her voice heard. It was important to be flexible during this part in particular, as the girls were incredibly creative and came up with solutions I hadn’t anticipated (for example, creating a “nest” which was placed on the ground under the dropped egg, or using the packaging from the cotton balls to make an air cushion). Any groups who finished early sat with one of the high school girls, who talked about some of the interesting things she had engineered and answered any questions the girls had.

Once everyone was done with the engineering challenge, the groups presented what they had created and why. Each girl said something about what they had contributed, if this differed from their initial idea, and any other thoughts they wanted to share. I tried to keep this part very casual to make it more like a conversation to the group than a formal presentation. This helped the girls to talk more and more openly. Many of the shyer girls who had whispered their names during the introduction were now confident enough to speak in front of the group because they were so excited about what they had engineered. Because of this improvement in confidence and public speaking skills, I consider the presentations to be one of the most important parts of a workshop.

An important thing to note is that the language the other high school girls and I used with the younger girls was very deliberate. We avoided words such as “talented” and “gifted,” which indicate that the girl is naturally good at something. Instead, we encouraged the group with words like “creative,” “hard-working,” “problem solver” and “resilient,” to indicate that the girls can continue to improve and better themselves by working hard. The concept that successful people are not natural geniuses, but work hard to reach success was also foundational to how the lesson was taught.

At the end of the workshop, each girl was given a trifold handout with an overview of the day’s lesson and additional engineering activities to try at home. The girls left each workshop proud what they had accomplished and met their parents gushing with excitement.

Why did you do it that way?

Kira: I did extensive research on why girls drop out of STEM activities more than boys after fourth grade, and was determined to combat the root causes through my workshop. One of the factors most commonly cited is that there is a lack of women currently in STEM careers, so younger girls don’t have many positive female engineer role models to look up to. Additionally, female engineers are rarely, if ever, talked about in school or on the news. I introduced about five diverse women engineers at each workshop, explaining not only their successes, but some of the failures they overcame before reaching success.

Another cause of girls losing interest in STEM is the media’s portrayal of STEM, especially engineering, as masculine and socially compromising. I didn’t talk to the girls at all about this stereotype, instead choosing to implicitly prove it wrong. To do this, the other high school girls and I also acted as positive female role models in engineering.

A third (but certainly not final) reason that girls are underrepresented in STEM is that they are expected to be neater and quieter children than boys. Engineers require room to experiment and make mistakes to learn from. It’s understandable that if girls grow up in an environment that doesn’t allow them to explore, take things apart, experiment, and occasionally break things, they will grow up thinking that engineering isn’t for them. Therefore, the workshops I created were all very hands-on and designed to build confidence. For example, one of the workshop’s activity was to take apart and identify the parts of old laptops. The girls were initially hesitant to destroy a laptop, but after some encouraging, they had a great time exploring what was inside. When the girls could do something themselves, their self-confidence grew and they were proud of the end result.

What did you find to be the most important or valuable part for you and for the girls involved?

Kira: Broadly, I think that the most important part for the younger girls was that they left feeling excited about and confident in engineering. This attitude came from a variety of aspects of the workshop, but most importantly learning about women engineers, talking to high school girls interested in engineering, and being encouraged to try engineering themselves. If I was to pick one aspect of the workshop as the most valuable, I’d have to say the presentations each girl gave of the engineering challenge. Through the presentations, the girls reflected on their creative process and were confident speaking in front of a group.

Personally, it was empowering to see that I could enact change in an area I’m passionate about. I wasn’t expecting the workshops to be as influential on the girls as they ultimately were, so I also grew in self-confidence.

Was what you did successful, and if so, how do you know?

Kira: As I mentioned before, I gave a brief survey at the beginning and end of the first workshop. The surveys were identical and anonymous, and began with the following three questions with YES / SOMETIMES / NO circle choices.

  • Do you like math?
  • Do you like science?
  • Do you like to build things or make art?

The survey then asked “Do you know anything about engineering? (List any thoughts), and finally “Are you interested in engineering? (YES / MAYBE or DON’t KNOW / NO).

Before the workshop, 4/16 girls surveyed wrote that they knew something about engineering, although none actually wrote what that knowledge was. Also before the survey, 3/16 answered YES to being interested in engineering, with 7/16 answering MAYBE or DON’T KNOW and 6 answering NO. After going through the workshop, 15/16 of girls surveyed answered YES to being interested in engineering, and all 15 wrote something about what they now knew. The end survey included answers to the fourth question such as “Building things with creativity” and “It is when you build something to solve a problem”.

The survey also showed that although the workshop centered around engineering, some girls grew their interest in math and science as well. This is likely because I explained engineering as the application of math and science to build solutions to problems. The first survey recorded 11 YES’s to an interest in math and 9 YES’s to an interest in science. At the end, these numbers were 14 and 12, respectively.

From observation alone, it was evident that the girls were excited about engineering. The girls left the workshops asking when the next workshop would be and what other engineering challenges I could bring them. The guidance counselor I worked with at the school said that some of the girls were coming to her during the school day to ask if I could come back soon to give more engineering workshops.

How would you change your approach if you were to do it again?

Kira: If I were to do this again, I would start earlier in the year to have more time for doing more workshops. I began the workshops in the spring, so only had time for two. This upcoming year I will be beginning the workshops near the start of the school year so that many more can be fit in throughout the school year.

I am still trying to figure out the best way, if any, to do a type of mentorship with the younger girls. The girls in the club I worked with rotate in and out of the club quite frequently, so I never decided on what would be best to keep in touch with them. Going into the next year of the workshops, I am considering giving the girls the emails of myself and a few other high school girls who help so that the younger girls can email us any questions or comments.

What follow-up plans do you have for this program?

Kira: This upcoming year is my senior year of high school, so I will still be around to organize and lead workshops. I plan on personally leading workshops about once a month, and having other high school girls lead workshops a couple times in between, so that the workshops are more frequent. Once I graduate, two clubs at my high school (the Technology Student Association and the Science Honor Society) will take over joint responsibility of continuing the engineering workshops. The presidents of these clubs will have the job of electing girls within the club to create workshops and communicate with the counselor at the elementary school.