The first thing you notice about the GECOS class at ScienceWorks is that all the students building solar cars are girls. The second thing you notice is that, as intended, they're more free with their ideas, chattier and more willing to make mistakes, then try something different.
GECOS — Girls Engineering Class of ScienceWorks — is running an 8-week after-school class for 9- and 10-year old girls, with the idea that getting them away from boys will help open up their creativity, overcome the stereotype that engineering is a guy thing and reverse the fact that only 20 percent of engineering grad students are female, says ScienceWorks program director Skoshi Wise.
The girls shape a flat piece of balsa wood into the chassis, affix wheels, shape a clay body, wire a photovoltaic panel to a motor and gears, add a little sunshine and off it goes. The week before, they shaped an egg-carrying vehicle that, with proper padding and bumpers, could withstand significant impact. In coming weeks, they'll create solar boats and planes.
"Solar powered cars are going to be our future because they don't have to use (standard) electricity," says student Marley Jones. "It's really fun because there are no boys and you get to experiment more. I'm making a car with a cat's face."
The girls repeatedly sang the praises of an all-girl class, with Emily Cartmell noting, "It's fun because there aren't any boys saying they could make it better than you or that you're bad. Boys are weird and sometimes they smell bad."
Student Sarah Aaronson said she is using eyes for headlights on her solar car and, "It's easier without boys. You have more in common with the girls and we get along. It would be noisier with boys and harder to work."
As she led the class in assembly of the 10-inch cars, teacher Stephanie Farrell encouraged innovation, such as using alternative tools if you don't have the right one — they used a box cutter for a hammer — noting, "We're all about making it work. We give them freedom to experiment and make mistakes. They learn they don't have to show off and that they can be wrong."
Says student Aurora Duval, "I like how we can just get up and do whatever we want. It makes you feel good."
Our society has a huge bias against the idea that engineering is something women can do, notes teacher Isable Van Dyke.
"Boys are directed toward it," she says. "They're told 'you can work with cars and computers' while girls hear they can be creative with art, English, teaching kindergarten. But a PhD in engineering is not something women can do."
However, says Van Dyke, last year in GECOS, its first year, participants brainstormed all the ways that females are good at engineering, including that "they're detail-oriented, they're creative when working together, rather than going to their office alone to work it out, like guys would — and they are better at asking for directions, such as you see when a couple lost on the highway."
In GECOS, says Van Dyke, girls pick up the process of engineering — designing something, testing it, finding out the ways it fails, redesigning it and then fabricating it.
"In the beginning, they might be nervous and feel bad if they can't make the car work," she says, "but science is about designing, testing and redesigning."
Says student Tayva Dipaoli, "It's fun. We use our imagination and build things. We don't have to worry about being bad at stuff. You don't have boys saying, 'haha, I'm better.'"
The girls do hands-on research and building in a series of challenges — a tower of straws and tape, bridges of craft sticks to hold increasing weight, "Rube Goldberg" type machines, Lego MindStorm Robots — and testing different-shaped propellers for wind tunnels that test solar and electric car shapes.
Sponsors include Avista Foundation, American Association of University Women, the Pacific Northwest Girls Collaborative Project mini-grant and City of Ashland. The NGCP is a National Science Foundation program for gender equality in Science Technology Engineering and Math.
The 8-week, after-school GECOS is for middle school and 4th-5th graders.
It's $90, with scholarships available and registration at www.scienceworksmuseum.org.