Contest aims to keep girls interested in math, science

Astronaut Ride inspires toy-making competition

October 21, 2002|By Lisa Biank Fasig | Lisa Biank Fasig,PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Forget about x + 1 =12. Keeping girls involved in math and science might require an equation for making racecars, dolls and potato heads.

Enter the TOYchallenge.

That's the name of a nationwide children's toy-making competition being held by Smith College and the Sally Ride Science Club. It is sponsored by Hasbro Inc.

The program is the result of efforts by Ride, a former astronaut, to find more ways to keep girls interested in science so that more can grow up to be engineers, scientists - and space explorers.

Research has found that girls seem to lose interest in those subjects in the fifth or sixth grade, although elementary school girls seem as interested in the subjects as boys are.

"It's all those things we remember about middle school," Ride said. "It's a hard time socially. Boys and girls often feel the need to fit in.

"They might not get the same response if they say they want to be an engineer as a boy would. Sometimes it's just not as cool."

Nine percent of engineers are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ride, who became the first American woman in space in 1983, founded a San Diego company to encourage girls to stay involved in science, math and engineering.

TOYchallenge is based on a first-year engineering course at Smith College, which requires students to develop educational toys that can be used by teachers. Ride heard about the project from Domenico Grasso, chairman of Smith's Picker Engineering Program, at a conference early this year.

Smith, the nation's largest undergraduate women's college, is the only women's college with an engineering program. At 3 years old, it counts about 120 students.

At the conference, Ride approached Grasso, and they came up with the idea of translating the project into a challenge for middle school youngsters, but without the teaching requirement.

"What we're trying to do is excite the kids, especially girls, about careers in engineering and science," Grasso said by telephone.

Toys made sense, Ride said, because the engineering design process is the same whether it's for a toy or a rocket engine. But, she said, "Everybody plays with toys."

Hasbro joined after Ride asked the Pawtucket, R.I., toymaker whether it would sponsor the program.

"What she mentioned to me was our commitment to children, what we do in the community," said Karen Davis, director of the Hasbro Charitable Trust.

To compete, each team needs one adult coach and $25 for registration. At least half of the team members must be girls. Visual presentations and operating instructions are due Jan. 31.

The contest will culminate in the spring with a national showcase of all concepts at Smith, in Northampton, Mass.

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