By Don Bradley
Down a flight of stairs at Center Middle School, through a hallway and into a large, cluttered, noisy room.
That’s the route for changing young girls’ lives.
It’s the robotics lab, a classroom and a field of study long dominated by males. But for Amirr and Vanessa and Lily and a few other girls, those days are history and that class is taught somewhere else.
Their robotics team is girl’s only.
“Men used to fight the wars, and women took care of the house,” said Vanessa, an 8th grader at the south Kansas City school. “It’s not like that anymore.”
Seela nodded her agreement. These girls are young teens so their historic perspective is limited, but they know what happens in classrooms when it’s time for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes: boys take over the show.
Now it’s their time.
“Doing this will help us do other things with our lives,” Seela said.
Lily, a 7th grader, said her grandfather was surprised to hear that only girls were on the team.
Their teacher, Derrick Prewitt, smiled at that. He sees his daughters in these students.
“Like I told my girls, I don’t want them to have to rely on a man,” Prewitt said. “I wanted them to be able to take care of themselves. What we do in here, that’s where the jobs are going to be.”
Christina Chandler works for the KC STEM Alliance, a network of educators and business partners that assists schools in promoting science and technology classes.
“What Derrick is doing is amazing,” Chandler said. “Sometimes it takes a teacher to change stereotypes. Derrick is turning these classes into positive experiences for these girls.”
According to the American Association of University Women, women make up only 28 percent of jobs in science and technology fields. The disparity is greatest in the fastest growing and best paid fields of computer science and engineering.
Statistics show that careers in STEM fields pay on average 2/3 more than other jobs.
That explains the push that public education is making to get more girls involved in those areas.
Chandler, who is also a robotics coach at Center High School, lived it. She says she knows all about what used to be called “man’s work.”
“I worked in computer science and I was the only female and only person of color there,” she said. “These are male-dominated fields and a lot of the time they are not hospitable to women.
“We need girls to get engaged. To do that we have to get them early. Middle school, that is the pivot point. That’s where a lot of kids choose a direction. If we can get them there, that is something they can carry over into high school.”
Amirr is sold. She’s an 8th grader but she knows about jobs and who does what and what’s a good job and where the world is headed.
“I think tech is going to be so much more in a few years than what it is now,” she said. “That’s where the good jobs are going to be in every area of society.”
Derrick Prewitt has taught school for 28 years.
Burnt out? Not even close.
He likes the noisy lab. He likes to see kids figure out moving parts, what goes where and what might work better.
Traci, a 7th grader, talked about the challenge of making robotic soccer players. She said there’s a lot of trying this and trying that.
“You just experiment to try to find the way that works best,” she said.
Prewitt knows the historic challenge. Research shows that girls perform better in these classes when boys are not in the room.”
“I’m not really trying to change lives, but I am trying to expose these girls to new and different things,” he said. “I don’t want them at age 50 wishing they could have done something else.”
He thought a bit.
“I tell them all the time they are stronger than they think. And if they end up becoming engineers, great. And if they show up at my funeral and tell my daughter that your dad is why I do what I do, yeah, that would really be great.”