By Ricki Watkins

Gathered around a toaster oven, a group of middle school girls waited anxiously to discover the fate of their “spacecraft,” and to see if they had selected the right materials to insulate their precious payloads from harsh “rocket launch conditions.”

“My butter lived!” exclaimed one of the girls, pulling open a foil-wrapped package to find that her pat of butter – AKA “spacecraft” - had survived the heat of the toaster oven – AKA “rocket launch.”

“Great job!” said Jordan Marks, Ball Aerospace materials and process engineer, and workshop lead for the “Bake a Spacecraft” activity at the 2016 Girls Exploring Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (GESTEM) event in Denver, Colo. “Now, you can see what materials engineers, like me, have to think about when we design a spacecraft to survive a rocket launch.”

Events like GESTEM aim to spark girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at an early age.

 “At a time when women hold less than 25 percent of the STEM jobs in the U.S., we have to ‘plant the seeds’ now to encourage young women to pursue STEM degrees,” said Debra Facktor Lepore, vice president and general manager of strategic operations for Ball Aerospace.

Why should industry care about getting more young women interested in STEM?

“For one, it’s the right thing to do,” said Lepore, an aerospace engineer. “And, for another, innovation is a direct product of diversity. Our industry needs a diverse, vibrant, talented and educated workforce to succeed.”

Research has shown that diversity yields the most successful teams. A variety of genders, races, age groups, backgrounds and cultures bring different perspectives and ideas, helping to drive innovation and cultivate creative solutions. According to a 2015 McKinsey & Company research report, companies that are gender-diverse are 15 percent more likely to “have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”

Lepore and many other Ball employees are personally passionate about encouraging young women to pursue careers in STEM. They are frequently volunteering their time with relevant organizations and programs that promote women in STEM. Ball supports these employees by providing sponsorships, materials and volunteer coordination.

“We need to get young people excited about STEM fields and teach them what we actually do,” said Brandi Skerpon, Ball systems engineer and 2016 GESTEM volunteer. “The more we spread the word about what we do in STEM fields, how fun and exciting it is, and how ANYONE can be in a STEM career, the better off our world will be in the future.”


Spring events focused on girls in STEM

This spring, Ball and its employees participated in three major girls in STEM events, which featured hands-on workshops and opportunities for young women to meet and interact with female engineers and technicians.

Students build circuits using playdough in the “Squishy Circuits” workshop, led by Ball engineers, at the 2016 GESTEM event. Photos courtesy of GESTEM.Girls Exploring Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (GESTEM)
  • When: May
  • Where: Colorado Convention Center, Denver, Colo.
  • Host: Rocky Mountain Section of the Society of Women Engineers
  • Participants: ~1,000 middle school girls
  • Ball participation: Sponsorship; workshops; event organization
Free to all participants, GESTEM enables girls across Denver to interact with engineering and technology professionals while participating in hands-on activities, such as creating Play-Doh figures lit by electric circuits, and conducting environmental tests on spaghetti and marshmallow structures.

“Our goal is to refine the overall message that’s brought to girls,” said Casey Waggy, Ball thermal engineer and GESTEM workshop coordinator. “We want to bring engineering to their level and help them see what they can do in these fields.”

According to RMS SWE’s GESTEM 2014 Annual Event Report, more than 75 percent of survey participants said they “left feeling inspired by the workshops to have a career in STEM.”

“I love volunteering for events like GESTEM and other outreach events because it’s so much fun to teach kids about how awesome it is to be an engineer!” Skerpon said.

High school students show off their “spacecraft” at the 2016 Girls Only Engineering Day.Girls Only Engineering Day
  • When: February
  • Where: Northglenn STEM High School, Northglenn, Colo.
  • Host: Northglenn STEM High School
  • Participants: ~80 high school girls
  • Ball participation: Workshops; speed networking; career panelists
Girls Only Engineering Day, an event “run by women, for women,” provides female students opportunities to learn about different engineering fields and interact with female professionals.

Ball systems engineer Emily Brandsdorfer was one of several Ball employees who participated in the day’s career panels and speed networking session at the 2016 event.

“I enjoyed the speed networking activity the most,” Brandsdorfer said. “It allowed me to spend quality time with a few girls. I got to hear what they were really interested in and provide them with some meaningful advice and encouragement.”

A middle school student participates in the “How to Keep Warm in Outer Space” workshop led by Ball materials and process engineer Beth Kelsic at the 2016 Expanding Your Horizons event. Photo courtesy of EYH.Expanding Your Horizons
  • When: February/April
  • Where: University of Colorado, Boulder, Colo.
  • Host: Boulder Branch of American Association of University Women
  • Participants: 100-300 middle school girls
  • Ball participation: Workshops
Part of the National Expanding Your Horizons Network, EYH aims to spark girls’ interest in STEM careers by connecting them with STEM role models and engaging them through hands-on activities.

“I believe that the purpose of STEM outreach is to foster curiosity,” said Beth Kelsic, Ball materials and process engineer and EYH volunteer. “It gives the students a venue to play and to think creatively with someone other than their teacher or parent. The more mentors they have, and the broader the exposure to how others see the world, the more possibilities they will consider.”

Kelsic has volunteered with EYH for many years, presenting experiments on chemistry and physics.
“It is rewarding for me to make the girls laugh, have fun while they are building their project, and then watch what they discover when they test their project,” she said.