By Luis Sanchez and Chelsea Sullivan
Katherine Cottral is the appointed robot. Her team of middle school girls created a line of code to help her navigate through a grid of tape spanning the small classroom. Her task is to pick up as many of the pieces of paper scattered on the floor and throw them into the garbage.
Cottral was one among the 750 middle and high school girls who attended the Girls Inc. of Long Island women’s empowerment conference on Saturday in Farmingdale. During the day, the visitors, mostly from minority backgrounds, learned about STEM, media literacy, notable women and empowerment.
“Our goal here at Girls Inc. is to empower all girls,” Renee Daniel Flagler, Executive Director at Girls Inc. of Long Island said. “Diversity is a huge initiative for us and making sure that what we have to offer girls and what we do to help girls be stronger smarter and bolder.”
Girls Inc. is a national non-profit organization and Saturday’s event was hosted by its Long Island affiliate at the Molloy College Suffolk Center. Their main focus is to create a successful path for minority girls, by mentoring and supporting them with programs like literacy and STEM.
“Operation Smart is the framework for the STEM curriculum we use. We teach them to get messy and make mistakes. These are things that usually hold them back, that they are told by society not to do,” Beatus-Vegh said.
The nonprofit also has a partnership with U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, where young girls are partnered with and work alongside lab researchers.
“I really enjoy science and STEM and I got to learn about electrical engineering,” Cottral, the robot girl, said. “I learned about wires, made solar cells and even designed windmill propellers to capture energy.”
Girls Inc. serves eight school districts on Long Island and is constantly expanding. The organization mainly serves Latino and African American communities who have experienced gender inequality in STEM.
“We focus on lower performing school districts with less funding, to give more girls a chance, and minority students tend to go to these schools more than others,” Barbara Beatus-Vegh, Associate Director of Girls, Inc. said.
Gender inequality in STEM, for minority women especially, has increased in recent years. Pew Research found that 44 percent of women experienced discrimination when being hired in a STEM field job. Girls Inc. offers a STEM courses within the program to push the girls to pursue these careers.
“Students of color are much more likely to attend school in a district with fewer economic resources to devote to the educational process,” Marc Silver, a sociology professor at Hofstra University who has studied educational inequality on Long island, said. “This includes under-equipped classrooms and science labs, out-of-date textbooks, fewer Advanced Placement courses, and more limited support services.”
The organization hires young female interns who are in college to connect with the girls. Part of this is a strategy to push for the girls at Girls Inc. to attend college.
“In one of the rooms, there’s a game where the girls are given pictures of notable women to put on their backs and they have to guess what name they have as the others describe the woman’s accomplishments,” Christine Nwachuku, 21-year-old Intern from NYIT said. “They teach the girls about powerful women from all ethnicities, especially minority groups.”