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Gillibrand pushes STEM education for girls, minorities

From left, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand looks on as

From left, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand looks on as Sarah Boecker, 17, Hope Pickus, 16, and Matthew Coleman, 17, members of the POBOTS, FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Team 353, show off one of their robots at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. Credit: Barry Sloan

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand met with student robotics enthusiasts at John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview Monday, touting two initiatives to boost interest and participation in science, technology, engineering and math, particularly among girls and minorities.

Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said it would take "a long time" to close the gap between boys and girls in those fields of study, but that it could be narrowed by providing female students and minorities with hands-on learning experiences.

She is lobbying for passage of two pieces of legislation that would promote science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education, which she introduced last year.


Making it mandatory

The first, targeting underrepresented groups, would bolster STEM programs in elementary and secondary schools, while the other would require states to incorporate engineering into those schools' curricula.

Many young girls, she said, are focused on helping others and would be more interested in science if they knew its practical applications, and "that it's not just being in a lab, isolated, but solving problems and changing the world," Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand said she also will reintroduce legislation to attract math and science teachers by providing educators with a tax credit to cover 10 percent of their undergraduate tuition -- up to $1,500 if they work in high-needs districts. She initially introduced that measure in May 2011.

Erin Norris, 17, and a senior at JFK, said the number of female students in her school's robotics club -- called POBOTS -- has nearly doubled in recent years, going from 11 last year to 21 students this year, just shy of half the club.

While she is encouraged by this, she's still in the minority in many of her science courses. She is one of only four girls in her Advanced Placement Physics class, which is college-level instruction, she said. The class has 27 students.

"It's a little rough sometimes, especially when you go to the robotics competitions," she said. "There are nine guys for every one girl."

Norris said she plans to double-major in neurology and foreign affairs. She's not sure how or if she will be able to marry the two.

She is waiting to hear back from her applications to Yale University, Brown University and Amherst College.


'We're a team'

Hope Pickus, 16 and a junior at JFK, joined POBOTS in her freshman year.

While she's taken note of the small number of women in the sciences, it hasn't been a deterrent, she said. She credits POBOTS with allowing her the opportunity to hone her skills.

Pickus, who is considering a career in mechanical prosthetics, takes pride in her accomplishments within the club. "We are all a team," she said. "We all work together."

Matthew Coleman, 17 and a senior, said he's glad to see the number of girls rise in recent years. "When I was a freshman, there were two female members of our club," said Coleman, the club's president.

When his team competed against other schools, some had all-girl teams or at least 50 percent female membership. POBOTS beefed up its recruitment and has benefited greatly from the addition of young women, he said.

"It seems like a different way of thinking and a different dynamic in the room," he said. "When we are brainstorming and coming up with ideas . . . it's significantly better. There's a different mindset."

Coleman already has been accepted at Georgia Tech and plans to study computer science or mechanical engineering. "Science fiction really grabbed me as a kid," he said. "And when I realized some of that work is actually being done, I could hardly believe it."

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