Submitted BY SHANNON MANN
CLAYTON — There’s no doubt a good book can be life changing.
Words on a page have a way of speaking to people. Stories of triumph and tragedy, adventure and heartbreak captivate readers. Books tell of the impossible becoming possible, and the underdog achieving their goals despite the odds. The power of a good book to encourage young women to see themselves differently isn’t lost on one Johnston County team, so they started a project to help young girls visualize themselves in STEM.
G-Force Robotics, an all-girl, high school FIRST Robotics Competition team based in Clayton, only started a few months ago, but already this rookie team is making an impact in its community. The young women who make up the team have the challenge of building 125-pound, industrial-sized robots for district, state and world competitions, but they also have a personal mission of community outreach that encourages elementary and middle school girls to learn more about STEM education and careers.
As the third all-girl team in the state, and one of only about 60 all-girl teams globally out of more than 4,000 registered teams, they want to encourage other girls to follow in their footsteps. Recently, the team partnered with local and national organizations and companies to launch their “Be That Engineer” literacy project to put engineering-themed books in public and elementary school libraries.
“The idea started because we got a recommended STEM reads book list from SWENext that promoted the stories of girl engineers and their adventures,” said Sloan Mann, build team member and freshman at Clayton High School. “We noticed that our library didn’t have a lot of the books on the list.”
The team saw that one of the books told the true story of Mary G. Ross, the first female engineer to work for aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. Ross also happened to be of Cherokee descent. A couple of the girls on the team had interacted with female engineers from Lockheed Martin before and decided to reach out to see if they could collaborate on something bigger.
“We asked the female engineers to sign notes of encouragement and inspiration inside the covers of the books so that when young girls check them out of the library they can read their notes and know that women engineers are real and they are cheering them on,” said Kaitlyn Nolte, programming team member and sophomore at Johnston County’s Early College Academy.
The first set of books was signed by engineers working at Lockheed Martin in Palmdale, Calif. This location is home of the historic Skunk Works, a hub of aerospace innovation that solves the defense industry’s hardest problems. Ellen McIsaac, a materials and processes manager there, and a mentor to G-Force, helped the team coordinate the signings.
McIsaac said her colleagues were thrilled to hear about the project and to participate. For her, the project carries special meaning,
“Representation matters! Looking back, I was always interested in the aerospace industry. I wrote a paper in fifth grade about how planes fly, and in middle school I tracked the progress of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on their path to Mars, and yet I never envisioned myself becoming an engineer in the aerospace industry one day,” McIsaac said. “The reason for that was twofold. I didn’t have enough exposure to be aware of engineering as a career, and I didn’t see many female scientists that I could aspire to be like. I hope that young girls reading these books and our notes will gain exposure to the field of engineering and learn that it’s possible for them to become engineers too.”
More books were signed by female engineers working on the Orion Spacecraft at Lockheed Martin in Florida.
For Nolte and two of her teammates, Madeline Gutierrez and Angelina Kwiatkowski, McIsaac’s comments resonate on a personal level. The three teammates are also classmates in the STEM/engineering program at JCECA, and they know first-hand that more girls need encouragement to pursue STEM options.
“Many STEM careers are composed of men, and I think in girls’ heads it’s like, ‘I can’t be in STEM, that’s for guys,’” said Gutierrez, build team member and sophomore at JCECA. “Getting younger girls interested in STEM is important to me because not only will it show the world that girls/women can do anything they want to do, but because those young girls can follow their passion and do what they love no matter what society says.”
“I think a lot of girls don’t apply to STEM-related programs like JCECA’s program because they feel intimidated by the ratio of boys to girls,” said Kwiatkowski, programming team member and sophomore at JCECA. “STEM in its entirety is fun and interesting to me. It’s important for younger girls to get into STEM because of the gaps in the workforce.”
The team realizes their book project might help other girls see what they could do. In addition to involving engineers across the country, the team also decided to involve some local ladies whose club has been providing service to the Clayton community since 1918. The team reached out to the Woman’s Club of Clayton to purchase books for the first distribution. The club has a long history of working to improve their local community socially, physically, culturally and educationally.
Each spring, club members put together bags of books for all the first graders at Cooper Academy so that the children have books to read during the summer break. The club usually donates 250-300 books a year.
“The club has an area of work that is responsible for projects in education and libraries,” said Betsy Grannis, president of the Woman’s Club of Clayton. “We have a special interest in STEM projects that focus on the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, especially for young girls. It checks all the boxes for a project that we are excited to contribute to,” she said.
The first books titled “Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer” were donated to the Clayton and Kenly libraries in late July when the team hosted a robotics-themed summer reads program at each location.
More books will be donated to local elementary schools starting this fall. The team is working with Caterpillar Inc.’s Clayton facility to do a live signing during Cooper Academy’s Open House night in late September.
“Caterpillar is great when it comes to STEM and community outreach,” Nolte said. “We plan to show off our robot, and they are joining us to sign a book called ‘Girls Can Be Engineers.’ We are so excited that some of their female engineers will be there to talk to the students.”
Other companies such as Collins Aerospace and RedHat are helping the team with this venture as well. The team hopes this is just the beginning of a national campaign to encourage other FIRST robotics teams across the U.S. to reach out to local schools and libraries, engage with SWENext resources and collaborate with local and national engineering firms and companies to donate signed books for elementary and middle school students.
Sydney Matisoff, the team’s marketing manager and a sophomore at Neuse Charter School, participates in a lot of story times through her volunteer work at Marbles Kids Museum. She sees the impact of reading on younger children. “It spreads awareness to not judge people based off of their looks, ethnicity, gender and history,” she said. “Books help them look at their potential, to stick up for themselves, to do their best and keep pushing the barriers.”
That’s exactly what G-Force’s mission and their “Be That Engineer” literacy project is all about to, pushing the barriers and allowing young girls to see themselves in a different role. “Maybe one day they start or join a robotics team,” said Mann, “Or maybe they are the next female engineer making history. We think it can start with a book.”
SWENext is a free club for girls under the age of 18 to be part of the Society of Women Engineers. The club promotes scholarships, education and STEM opportunities. Girls in fifth through 12th grade are welcome to join the Johnston County STEM Girls SWENext Club.
To find out more about G-Force Robotics or SWENext or to request a book for an elementary school visit www. gforcerobotics.com or find the team on social media.