Thursday | December 14, 2017
About Us | Contact | Subscribe

Young women get STEM immersion at annual GEMS event

Updated: 
November 10, 2017 - 8:56am

KAILUA-KONA — Three years ago, a principal at a local elementary school asked the 15 or so girls in her fifth-grade class why none of them had signed up for the “Girls Exploring Math and Sciences” event being held in Kona.

What she heard prompted a drastic response.

Jamie Pardau — vice president of the American Association of University Women, which has sponsored GEMS events in West Hawaii every year since 1996 — recalled the story Thursday afternoon as nearly 400 young ladies zipped between a variety of workshops highlighting everything from robotics coding to a mock archaeological dig.

Most of the girls just shrugged their shoulders at the principal’s question, Pardau explained, so she pushed the issue.

“(The principal) asked them what kind of jobs they thought they could do with math and science,” Pardau said.

“Cashier,” one girl answered.

“Waitress,” replied another.

“She got a van, registered every fifth-grade girl and said ‘If that’s the limit of what you see as possible, then you’ve got to come here,’” Pardau recalled.

That’s what GEMS is all about, Pardau continued — empowerment and enlightenment for the young ladies of Hawaii Island.

“It isn’t always real obvious, especially in Hawaii, that they could be scientists or mathematicians or engineers or be involved in tech,” Pardau said.

But just telling the girls wasn’t enough. Just showing them wasn’t enough. So from the beginning, immersion has been the goal of a day that’s gotten bigger and bigger with each passing year, as GEMS beats down the roadblocks standing between women and STEM-based careers.

“They don’t learn about something, they get a chance to be something, like a veterinarian or whatever it is,” explained Cindy Armer, GEMS chairperson. “We’ve never had this many girls.”

Local female professionals from across STEM fields — such as engineers, doctors and marine scientists — take a day out of their lives to come encourage and inspire excited youths, which Armer said means a lot.

“The girls can put them on a pedestal, and they never fall off because they only see them here,” she explained.

But it wasn’t only career women on hand to serve as role models Thursday at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel.

Several high school students, many of them former GEMS participants, were there to lead workshops and connect with this year’s class in ways that become more difficult as age gaps widen.

“They’re so smart. It’s weird!” said Laine Tjarks, a junior at West Hawaii Explorations Academy and a GEMS attendant herself, once upon a time. “They kind of remind me of me, just wanting to know everything.”

Halia Locke, another WHEA junior, wasn’t part of GEMS as a child. But she was thrilled to be there Thursday as young woman standing at the precipice of a promising future, especially after a childhood during which she spent some time homeless — just her and her mother surviving on their own.

“I never got to do this wonderful program, but it’s nice to work with it now and share the passion that I have for the ocean with all these children,” she said. “They’re so eager, especially having that hands-on learning like we have at WHEA.”

Every workshop Thursday was project-based and offered mostly new information to the girls participating, which kept them excited and fueled a palpable energy noticeable in every corner of the hotel throughout the afternoon.

Kira McCandless, a Waimea fifth-grader, said the robotics class was the highlight of her day, adding she sees herself working as a programmer 15 years down the line.

“I learned how to code robots and how to make a video game,” she said excitedly.

Kelsi Clarke, a fifth-grader at Kealakehe Elementary, said both the workshops and running around to find her friends from other schools were equally fun activities.

She summed up how she would explain GEMS to a fourth-grade student considering attending the event next year.

“It’s awesome and it’s fun,” she said. “You get to meet new friends and you get to learn new stuff about what you want to be maybe when you grow up. It kind of opens your mind up.”

Rules for posting comments