One thing stood out to Stephanie Hein when she started attending science classes at the University of Illinois.
All of her teachers were men.
"I noticed that right away," said Hein, who just graduated with her molecular and cellular biology degree. So she is fully onboard with MakerGirl, a non-profit startup from the University of Illinois that provides seven to 10-year-old girls hands-on experience with 3D printers. The idea is to acquaint them with the possibilities of a career in STEM-related fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Since November of 2014, the organization has held about 50 events in Illinois, and this summer it’s going national with over 50 workshops in 18 states.
The tour kicked off with a session for about a dozen youth at the Hope Welty Public Library in Cerro Gordo on June 1. Attendees designed keychain-sized fashion pieces on computers, then used nine 3D printers to produce them on site. They included plastic tennis shoes, shirts and other items that will serve more as keepsakes than anything, but Hein said the process itself will stick with some of the girls forever.
"Even if they don’t end up going into STEM, I think the process of taking their idea and making a final product – you can use that in anything," said Hein, who will continue her studies this fall at the University of Michigan with plans to go into teaching.
As technology advances at a stunning pace, MakerGirl organizers say no girl is too young to learn about science.
"Our main goal is to try and get girls into STEM fields earlier," said Sona Kaul, MakerGirl’s finance director and an industrial engineering student at the U of I. "It seems somewhere in the elementary and middle school, girls lose interest. I think that’s why we have such a lack of women in STEM fields."
Modern technology has also helped breed new-fangled financing for the group. A Kickstarter campaign raised $32,276 to fund the 10-week summer tour, which will include stops as close as Piatt County and as far away as San Francisco and New York.
The project is also made possible because 3D manufacturer Ultimaker donated 15 printers to the cause, worth about $45,000. The machines translate computer designs into three-dimensional objects with layers of plastic filament. The printers can produce relatively large items, but time constraints limit what MakerGirl can accommodate. For example, even the keychain-sized objects produced at Cerro Gordo took about 30 to 40 minutes each to print.
"It’s really exciting to see how excited and interested the girls get because I’m obviously interested as an engineering student," added Kaul. "In my engineering classes, everything is unequal; there are 30 guys and two girls. So to see us making a step toward balancing that number is really cool."
After its first stop of the summer tour in Cerro Gordo, a U of I student team of 4-5 girls continued to Springfield the same day, and will stay in Illinois through June 4 before spending Week 2 in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Presentations are also planned in Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, California, New Mexico, Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Ohio, Michigan then final stops Aug. 3 in Chicago.