As Shell Oil engineer Mollie Copeland stood with a group of students outside the main house at Longue Vue House and Gardens last Saturday, she fielded questions from all sides.
“How do we know if the bridge we’re building is strong?” said Trinity Episcopal third-grader Luciana Reilly. “Do you think this design will work?” called out Fern Niven, a first-grader at Metairie Park Country Day.
Meanwhile, all five girls worked on constructing small individual bridges.
Finally, Metairie Academy second-grader Sarah Ruppel asked the question on everyone’s mind: “When we’re done building, can we eat our bridge?”
The group’s gumdrop and toothpick bridges did, in fact, serve as a little pre-lunch snack, but they also opened a conversation between the 7- to 12-year-olds and Copeland about what how real bridges are built and how female engineers play a wide variety of roles in society.
“For instance, it could have been a woman electrical engineer that figured out how to best get those cool shoes of yours to light up,” said Copeland to Luciana.
It’s conversations like these that were the goal of Longue Vue House and Gardens’ first Day of the Girl, an event designed to encourage young girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
“Tomorrow, Oct. 11, was actually proclaimed by the United Nations as International Day of the Girl Child four years ago in order to bring attention to issues concerning gender inequality around the world,” said Edna Lanieri, education director at Longue Vue House and Gardens. “So we decided to create our own local celebration of the day with a four-hour program that includes a great keynote speaker and four different breakout sessions.”
Approximately 20 young girls from Orleans and Jefferson parishes enjoyed a visit from three-time Olympic swimming champion Ashley Tappin-Doussan, who started the day out by talking to the girls about the importance of having focus and embracing disappointment.
“She talked about her setbacks in getting to the Olympics and how they helped focus and guide her,” Lanieri said. “Of course she also passed around her gold medals, which was fun.”
In addition to Copeland’s bridge-building station, the girls also learned about careers in social media technology from Mary Silva, an Internet marketing lead with local firm Search Influence.
“My office is actually 68 percent women,” said Silva. “And we get to spend the whole day on the computer.”
“Lucky!” called out Luciana.
Christina Quijano’s breakout session offered the girls an opportunity to conduct a real water sample testing to gauge whether or not it was healthy for flora and fauna. In her role as a trainer for young adults interested in environmental technician and wetland restoration careers with Limitless Vistas Inc., she said she has seen very little interest in the field from women.
“My classes average around 12 people, and I’d say it’s typically one woman and 11 men,” she said. “Seeing these girls so engaged today is really amazing.”
Rounding out the day was a round of fun warmups with Jody Braunig, executive director of Girls on the Run New Orleans, a nonprofit that uses running to inspire and motivate young girls to reach their potential.
“Today is about both the body and the mind,” said Lanieri. “There’s a real gap right now between women getting advanced degrees and actually getting STEM jobs. With events like this, we hope to eventually help change that.”