Two rows of girls sat or knelt down at the Rocky Mountain College aviation booth Saturday afternoon at Girls-n-Science, each holding a block of plastic foam in one hand and a potato peeler in the other.
Their goal was to carve out an airplane wing, peeling away layers until their block turned into an elongated triangle. Then the girls stepped up to a miniature air tunnel in which their wings were individually secured by two toothpicks to see what would happen.
“As you push the wing into the wind, you can see it lift,” pilot Trena Boyd told 8-year-old Emerald Browning, as the two watched the wing flutter slightly.
Boyd asked the Lockwood Elementary third-grader where she planned to fly.
“Hawaii,” Emerald replied.
The goal of the ninth annual Girls-n-Science at Montana State University Billings is to expose girls in fourth through eighth grade to the many different science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers available to them, said Mary Ann Keenan, development officer at MSU Billings Foundation.
“We’re trying to encourage girls to continue their interest in science, and give them a variety of things to do and see and people to talk to,” said Keenan, director of the event. “Those people can really give them some information.”
During the morning, seventh and eighth-grade girls were invited to take part in STEM Stars, longer sessions at the Liberal Arts building featuring speakers who introduced the students to STEM careers. In the afternoon, girls in fourth through sixth grades browsed through 30 booths set up in the Alterowitz gymnasium.
Some of the girls wore nametag stickers, which displayed their hoped-for future professions. The tags revealed the presence of a potential doctor, history teacher, nurse, president, animal rescuer and microbiologist, among others.
Many of the booths, like the RMC aviation stall, were hands-on, letting girls roll up their sleeves and try a variety of activities. At one booth they filled dental cavities. At another, they created DNA jewelry, sliding different-colored beads on string.
At the Billings Works booth they donned STEM-related work clothes — ranging from lab coats and stethoscopes to fluorescent vests and hard hats — and got their photos taken. They left with a memento of the day.
At the ExxonMobil booth, 9-year-old Madilin Kenat concentrated on stirring ingredients together to make slime. The mixture of school glue, borax, water and food coloring slowly began to gel.
“It doesn’t take too long to make,” she said, as she continued the task. “If you play with it once in a while, it doesn’t get hard.”
Madilin’s nametag bore her future career aspiration: paleontologist.
“I’ve always liked to dig in the dirt and I’ve loved dinosaurs for a long time,” the Meadowlark student said. “So I just thought it would be really fun to play in the dirt and dig things up and figure out which kind of dinosaur it is.”
You can figure out certain dinosaur characteristics, she said, by examining the teeth and bones. As Madilin worked on the slime, her grandmother, Joyce Behm, looked on.
Behm, looking around, was impressed with all that she saw.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been to one and I just can’t believe all the different opportunities they get to try out,” she said. “It’s awesome, and she’s having a great time.”
At the CTA Architects Engineers booth, architect Shannon Christensen handed 30 straws and two arms-lengths of masking tape to another young girl. The goal, Christensen told the girl, was to build a structure half-a-straw tall that could hold the weight of wooden blocks.
The exercise, she said as the girl worked on her creation, is meant to teach the students a bit about structural engineering and loading a structure. CTA has been part of the annual event since it began.
“It’s great to get girls exposed to different areas of science they might know about from school and pique their interest,” she said. “You never know when you might find an architect or engineer.”
Christensen took a drafting class in seventh grade and enjoyed it. That, combined with an aptitude for science and math in high school, made her chosen career a good fit.
About 50 percent of college graduates in architecture are women, she said. That number decreases somewhat in terms of licensed architects, but even that's changing.
"We see that increasing with more women graduates," she said.
Emerald, the third-grader at the RMC aviation booth, said she’d like to be an astronaut.
“Someday, if they ever let us, I want to go to Mars,” she said. “If I ever get to go to space, it will be awesome just to see all the planets.”
Boyd, who tested Emerald’s wing in the wind tunnel, was the first woman to graduate in aviation from Rocky, in 1993. She’s been flying air ambulance for Billings Clinic for 21 years.
Boyd, who grew up in Whitefish, lived next to a hospital that had a helipad.
“I used to watch the helicopters come in and land and the airplanes at the airport, and I was just fascinated from a young age,” she said. “So I decided from that age that I wanted to pursue aviation and be a pilot.”
About 6 percent of professional pilots are women, Christensen said, which is evidenced by the reactions she sometimes gets.
“When I’m flying, I get some passengers asking me if I’m the flight attendant,” she said. “I say ‘no I’m actually the senior captain up there.' So it surprises some people.”
With the number of pilots retiring creating a shortage, it's a good time to go into the profession. On Saturday, Boyd hoped to inspire the next generation of female flyers.
“We’ve got the best office seat there is,” she said. “And it’s challenging. Every day is different.”