Release Date: March 16, 2012
BUFFALO, N.Y. – Tamara Brown knows if she says the word "polymer" to the average teenage girl, she's likely to be met with a blank stare. She also knows she'll get a much more enthusiastic reception to the word "gumdrop."
Bridging the gap between the candy and the chemical compounds that actually make the stuff is just one of the many events slated to take place at the seventh annual Tech Savvy Conference in UB's Student Union on Saturday, March 17 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The event is sponsored by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and Praxair, Inc. and hosted by the University at Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Tech Savvy is the brainchild of Brown, a UB alumna with a master's degree in engineering, who is a member of Praxair's U.S. Project Execution team. She conceived of the idea in 2004, after becoming president of the Buffalo chapter of the AAUW. Aware of the alarming statistics regarding low enrollment for women in college courses such as engineering, she started thinking about ways to open up opportunities, and careers, for women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
She hit upon the idea of Tech Savvy – a conference geared toward middle-school girls, aimed at introducing them to STEM fields in ways that are fun, exciting and relevant to their world. Brown knows making math and science fun is the first step to encouraging girls to consider careers in STEM fields.
For her efforts, Brown earned recognition last year from President Obama as one of 12 "Champions of Change" dedicated to recruiting girls and women to pursue STEM careers.
According to Brown, one of the reasons girls are dissuaded from pursuits in STEM fields is that the young women often don't view science and technology careers as jobs that "help people," something that Brown's research has revealed is important to girls when making career decisions. Brown hopes to combat that false notion with the theme of this year's conference: "Doing Well by Doing Good."
"We want to show the girls that STEM (education and careers) can foster good things, whether it's societal good or environmental good," said Brown.
Participants will learn more about the philanthropic side of science through demonstrations and presentations led by UB faculty as well as by a variety of partnering community groups.
A prime example of showing girls the softer side of science is the robotics demonstration led by Venkat N. Krovi, UB associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Krovi and his graduate students will be introducing the participants to haptics, which is tactile feedback technology, or as Krovi likes to call it, "the touchy-feely side of robotics."
By getting girls to see science and technology in a less intimidating light, Krovi hopes more girls will become interested in fields like robotics, especially when they see all the service-oriented applications that are possible with technology, such as medical robotics and toy design.
John Ringland, UB associate professor of mathematics, will be conducting "Math…Worlds to Explore," and will be introducing participants to Conway's Game of Life, a zero-player game which mimics population growth and can result in interesting patterns.
"Math is much broader," Ringland said. "It's about patterns in general; it's a process of exploration."
Ringland hopes that the young girls at the event can begin to see those patterns, and in doing so will realize that math is a tool which can be used across a variety of fields, instead of something that is impractical in the real world.
"This event is fun for us," Ringland said. "Hopefully some of our enthusiasm will rub off on the participants and they'll start to see math in a new light."
Several other UB professors and students will be conducting workshops as well, on myriad topics including community planning, the environmental impact of oil spills, earthquake relief response, medicine and energy production.
Brown has also enlisted the help of several community agencies to give the girls even more options.
"We look at future careers; we look at what's hot, like green jobs. We look at what is realistic. And then we look in the Buffalo community for collaboration," Brown said. "It's amazing how many connections you make."
The girls attending Tech Savvy reap the rewards of those connections, having the opportunity to participate in workshops led by Roswell Park, Praxair, Independent Health, the National Weather Service, Buffalo Niagara RIVERKEEPER and the FBI.
Brown estimates that in the past six years, over 1,000 girls have participated in Tech Savvy, many of them coming back year after year.
It is these older girls, the ones who have grown up in the Tech Savvy program, and are now in high school, that Brown had in mind when she decided to launch the newest component of her program "Tech Savvy Girls on a Roll." Designed specifically for 10th grade girls, this portion of Tech Savvy is presented in partnership with Princeton Review, and is designed to introduce the girls to the SAT by allowing them to sit for a moderated practice exam.
Tech Savvy also has a session for parents who wish to attend along with their daughters. This year the presenters will discuss bullying, financial preparedness, academic achievement, public policy that impacts education and grassroots movements that are advocating for more reform and resources.