Tucked in the bowels of the Triton College campus in the Chicago suburb of River Grove, Illinois, a group of students are hard at work welding, grinding and cutting metal as sparks glow off their welding helmets. But something immediately stands out when each student pops up their mask: They are all 12- to 16-year-old girls.

The dozen or so girls are enrolled in a summer camp called GLoW (Girls Learning to Weld). In its third year running, the program is part of the NBT (Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs) summer camp series that is designed to introduce middle school and high school girls to the world of metal fabrication while teaching design and engineering. NBT is the foundation of the Elgin, Illinois-based Fabricators & Manufacturers Association Intl.

But to GLoW founder, instructor and Triton College Engineering Technology faculty member Antigone Sharris, this camp is a sort of necessary evil.

“I’ve always had gender-neutral programming that was open to anybody,” said Sharris, who has helped run numerous STEM and manufacturing courses for kids, including FIRST Robotics and TechSavvy. “I never thought of these programs I ran as just for girls or just for boys.”

Not long after beginning her career as an educator, however, Sharris started noticing a not-so-subtle trend at the manufacturing and STEM camps she was helping to run: a lack of girls. “What really hit it home was when I was teaching Project Lead the Way classes for one of the local schools – they were 100% boys. It was like, ‘Holy crap. This is not good.’”

GLoW came as a result of another girl-focused NBT program headed by Sharris: GADgET (Girls Adventuring in Design, Engineering and Technology), which began in 2010. But while GADgET offered courses in STEM basics, GLoW allows girls to get their hands on metalworking tools and create projects out of steel and aluminum under the guidance of Sharris and Adele Moy, another STEM educator who teaches at Horizon Science Academy in Chicago.

“I knew there was a problem, and GADgET was the beginning of the solution,” Sharris said. “And as we got a welding lab, GLoW was the next logical step.”

One student who made the transition from GADgET to GLoW is 13-year-old Miley Garcia, who said she’s had an interest in STEM from an early age. “When my mother was looking for more camps for me that were more advanced, we came across GADgET,” said Garcia. “I thought it would be a really cool experience being surrounded by other girls interested in the things that I like to do. It seemed very exciting.”

“We have to get more diversity in the STEM pathway,” Sharris said. “You have to break the thought processes of a lot of people. And that's not something that happens in a moment. That's something that happens with exposure to multiple opportunities to different things that they otherwise wouldn’t normally do.”

Read the full story from The Fabricator.

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