Hampton Middle School girls get boost from aerospace mentors
Daily Press. Mike Holtzclaw. February 05, 2020.
School had let out for the day, but a science lesson was still in session in the library at Jones Magnet Middle School in Hampton on Monday evening.

About a dozen sixth-grade girls had small baggies of metal pilings and were directing their movements with a small magnet. At the front of the room Heather Kline — a research assistant at the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), who works in conjunction with NASA Langley Research Center — was explaining to the girls why the Earth has a magnetic field that Mars and Venus lack. (Our molten core is hotter, providing more highly charged materials.)

“If you had a compass on Mars,” Kline concluded, “it wouldn’t be too helpful.”

The girls in the classroom are part of the new BraveHearts club, overseen by faculty members Tijuana Lambert and Tonia Lancaster. It is Hampton’s chapter of a national organization for middle school girls, aimed at increasing confidence, leadership and empowerment through exposure to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Women have historically been underrepresented in those fields, but in recent years there has been a nationwide push to expose girls to technological courses at earlier ages.

Toward that end, Hampton City Schools STEM teacher specialist Betsy McAllister — who serves as educator in residence at NIA — has arranged for some young women from NIA and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics to lead STEM activities for the girls. Kline’s presentation at Jones Magnet on Monday was the first.

“I think they need to see somebody they can see as a near peer in the field — someone young and female who looks like them,” McAllister said. “We know there are groups underrepresented in the STEM fields, and if they can see someone relatable, they can say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.'

“If they’re not turned onto STEM by middle school, we run the risk of losing them. Any later and you worry that they’ll think it’s too hard for them and just check out altogether on those subjects.”

Kline was among the first to volunteer for McAllister’s program — a 31-year-old engineer with a college doctorate and a private pilot’s license.

Kline grew up in Seattle and recalls being the only girl in a science-themed summer camp at age 5. She said the shortage of women role models in aviation and aeronautics never held her back, but she knows that she benefited from her early science education and wants other girls to have the same advantages.

“It’s my way of giving back, I guess,” she said. “We need engineers. We need pilots — there’s a pilot shortage coming up. If we tell 50% of our young people ‘This is not for you,’ that’s ridiculous. It harms us and keeps us from getting to our full potential.”

Kline worked with the students for about 45 minutes, using examples from her own experience to hold their attention and explain the principles she was describing. Given an opportunity to ask questions, the sixth-graders eagerly inquired about what it’s like to fly a plane and what kind of training is required.

“I appreciate having someone like her to come here,” said Robin Sorrell, who says she might want to pursue a career in aerospace. “I try to be grateful for what I have, and to be able to talk to someone who has actually done those things, and to ask her questions, that’s really helpful.”

Her classmate A’Kiera Salik said she is already benefiting from the new BraveHearts group at the school.

“I signed up because it looked really interesting,” she said. “It’s helpful learning in different ways than the textbook in the classroom. I’m looking forward to the field trips, too.”

McAllister has been teaching in Hampton for more than two decades, but she still gets a rush witnessing those moments when science sparks an interest in a creative young mind.

“You never get tired of those aha moments,” she said. “You see that light click on, and that’s when things start to happen. That’s the reaction we’re trying to get here.”

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