Middle school student Judith Rivera, left, and Sacramento State student Anessa Forshey prepare to measure a fish during the Expanding Your Horizons conference held on campus Nov. 2. (Sacramento State/Jonathan Morales)
By Jonathan Morales
“How long can they be without water?” Judith Rivera asked.
She’s looking down at a convict cichlid fish, which her fellow middle schooler Princess Willis had just pulled out of a nearby tank and placed – gently – on a lightly moistened mat for weighing and measuring.
“A few minutes,” replied Anessa Forshey, a Sacramento State biology major overseeing the proceedings. “But we try not to keep them out too, too long.”
Rivera and Willis were among the more than 350 middle school students on campus Saturday, Nov. 2 to participate in the Expanding Your Horizons conference, an annual event sponsored by Sacramento State and the nonprofit Women of AT&T Sacramento chapter to encourage and empower young women to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Attendees were exposed to a variety of STEM careers though hands-on learning activities facilitated by Sacramento State faculty and students as well as industry professionals from companies such as SMUD, Intel and Bayer.
Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields, said Expanding Your Horizons Project Director and Sacramento State alumna Yen Marshall. The conference is meant to increase girls’ interest in those areas by providing interactive learning experiences and opportunities to meet role models who are active in STEM.
“We want these girls to know there is an exciting STEM world out there, but by seeing so many STEM role models who work in Sacramento, these girls also know that it’s also possible to have STEM careers right here in Sacramento,” she said.
The goals of the event resonate with Ron Coleman, a Sacramento State biology professor who has been involved with Expanding Your Horizons since its inception 12 years ago.
Coleman said many girls, around sixth grade, begin to see science as "not cool or not something little girls do." Peer pressure often is a reason.
“The whole mission of this thing is to show them it’s interesting and fun and it’s something they might want to consider, and I love that,” he said.
Coleman, assisted by three Sacramento State student volunteers, led a "Fun With Fishes" workshop. Participants cycled through a variety of hands-on – literally – activities, including handling fish to weigh and measure them, a tour of Coleman’s fish lab, and an opportunity to try out equipment such as an underwater camera.
The fish workshop was one of nearly 30 offered across campus, ranging from “Robotics FUNdamentals” and “Girl Power-Solar Power” to “Marvelous Metals” and “Genetics and Me.” The event also included a career fair and a keynote address from LaShelle May, senior manager of software development at CNN.
Renee Van, a junior accounting major who also volunteers with a youth robotics program, spent Saturday working with middle school students. She helped girls take dental impressions of each other in the "Dental Impressions Day!" workshop, and, in "Mazing Mechanical design," she oversaw groups vying to build the tallest spaghetti tower or a boat that could hold the most pennies.
The most enjoyable part of Expanding Your Horizons, Van said, was seeing participants engaging in hands-on activities and bonding as they worked together to solve challenges.
“They were learning STEM principles in ways you wouldn't expect them to,” Van said. “They were learning about gravity and physics but using simple things like spaghetti and marshmallows.”
In addition to introducing girls to potential STEM careers, Expanding Your Horizon also brings them into close contact with a college campus, an equally important objective, Coleman said.
“A lot of young people think college is scary, and this gives them just a little taste," he said. "No it’s not necessarily scary. There are interesting things behind all those closed doors, they just have to seek them out.
“It’s about giving them a little bit of a chance to see this could be their future. Sac State serves vast numbers of the Sacramento region’s population. We want them to feel that this is their place.”