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Great ideas blossom from STEM Day

Grayslake-02/23/13 Sat./College Lake County (front)  Bridget Wright 13 Round Lake fellow classmate MayGajeski 12 Round Lake both 7th graders

Grayslake-02/23/13, Sat./College of Lake County (front) Bridget Wright, 13, of Round Lake and fellow classmate Maya Gajeski, 12, of Round Lake both 7th graders from Big Hollow Middle School work on weight of alloys for a materials engineering session during STEM event at College of Lake County in Grayslake. | Joe Shuman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 26, 2013 6:06AM

Can your cell phone hurt you? How does NASA launch rockets? Using a limited number of mini-marshmallows and toothpicks, could you engineer a structure that can bear the weight of more than 150 pennies?

These and other questions were explored in a series of presentations and hands-on experiments Saturday at the College of Lake County in Grayslake during the Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) Day for Girls.

The annual program’s goal is to increase interest in science and engineering careers among girls in middle school and high school.

“I have strong feelings about this. I think we tell young women the wrong things and keep them out of these types of careers,” said Michelle Leonard, an engineer, CLC instructor and department chair.

“When people think of engineering, they think of video games and better TVs. The kinds of things that interest boys. But it’s not just video games, I assure you. It includes medical advances and a lot of things that are interesting for girls,” she said.

Leonard presented a program with the title Call Me, Maybe (an intriguing nod to the hit song by Carly Rae Jepsen) that included three simple experiments to help participants determine the level of potential health risks associated with cell phone use.

The tests pointed toward the conclusion that risks, based on the level and type of radiation emitted from the devices, are very low, but that long-term data is not in and texting provides less direct exposure than talking on the phone while it is held against your head.

One of the tests involved using a radio frequency meter to measure the volume of radio waves emitted during a call as opposed to a text message.

“It’s been fun. I learned a lot,” said Ericka Arteaga, a sophomore at Round Lake High School, who is considering a science career. “It’s been a new learning experience for me.”

“I love this class, it’s really interesting,” said Emma Mesar, a high school student from Princeton, Ill., who got up at 4:30 a.m. with her dad to make the long drive to Lake County to take advantage of STEM Day and chose Call Me, Maybe as one of her activities.

“I use my cell phone much too much,” she said before the experiments were completed. “If I thought about it too much, I’d probably scare myself,” she said, adding that the STEM Day program presented a great opportunity for her because she hopes to find a career in science.

In addition to the presentations, which also included information on how emergency medical technicians respond to medical emergencies and a demonstrations on using lasers to etch materials, the day included hands-on workshops including the construction of model rockets to learn the process NASA uses to launch rockets, working to identify acids and bases through testing, and using toothpicks and marshmallows to explore load-bearing and structural engineering methodology .

“It’s a wonderful program,” said Sherry Brewton, whose daughter Adrianna, a Beach Park Middle School student, participated in the event. “Girls need a lot more push than boys in these fields.”

CLC Associate Dean Jose Velarde said more than 120 students and more than 40 parents, from across Lake County and beyond, attended STEM Day for Girls this year, the third year CLC has participated in the program.

He said that while Thursday was national Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, CLC has moved the grant-funded STEM Day to Saturdays in order to allow more girls to participate and to provide more time for the presentations and experiments.

The presenters at the event are all women with established careers in the subjects, another signal to the students that women can be successful in science and engineering fields, organizers said.

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