- Associated Press - Thursday, September 24, 2015

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Mckayla Carroll, 13, used the tip of an uncooked angel hair pasta noodle to puncture the soft, white fluff of a miniature marshmallow in the process of building the Leaning Tower of Pasta.

Carroll was one of 16 seventh-grade girls at Davis-Emerson Middle School to participate in the Alabama Power iCan program, which teaches middle-school girls about engineering.

The company launched the program in Tuscaloosa last year at the same school. The program is also offered at schools in Gadsden, Anniston and Birmingham.

The program, which started in Birmingham in 2008, uses a fun learning environment where girls can think like an engineer. The program teaches them about the different career opportunities available to them in the engineering field - civil, computer, environmental and chemical engineering, to name a few.

“The purpose of iCan is to introduce middle school girls to careers in a STEM field, which is science, technology, engineering and math. We focus on engineering and math with this program,” said Anna Catherine Roberson, communications specialist for Alabama Power. “Our mission statement for iCan is empowering young female minds of today to engineer a better world for tomorrow.”

With activities like building bridges with straws, paper clips and tape, building towers with spaghetti and marshmallows and making ice cream with ice and salt, the girls learn teamwork, critical thinking skills and the different kinds of engineering.

Roberson said another goal of the program is to dispel the stereotype of who a typical engineer is - a man.

“(Engineering) is a male-dominated field, and we want to encourage more females to go into that field,” she said. “We also want to start getting the girls to think about what they want to be when they grow up and start on that track now.”

To do that, female volunteers who work in some capacity at Alabama Power act as mentors to the girls in the program. They tell the girls about their jobs and how they got them.

Karen Davis, assistant principal at Davis-Emerson Middle School, said that a lot of times girls don’t have positive role models, so having the opportunity to bond with the employees was “awesome.”

“It was really neat for them to connect to female professionals,” Davis said.

Roberson said one girl who participated in the first iCan class in 2008 is now majoring in engineering at the University of Alabama, and the program is what inspired her to do so.

Statistics show that female undergraduate enrollment in engineering is 20 percent, and only 11 percent of people working in the engineering field are women, Roberson said.

She said the decline starts in middle school, which is when girls begin to lose interest in math and science, according to statistics.

Davis said that in her professional experience, boys tend to have a higher interest in math and science and better grades in those subjects than girls.

“We have a robotics team here, and it is made up of guys.” Davis said. “The interest for math and science just kind of veers off in middle school (for girls).”

But the program seems to have opened the girls’ minds, she said.

“I never even thought about engineering as a career. I definitely think this program has opened up the possibility of engineering as a career in my mind,” Mckayla said. “I learned that engineering can be a female career. We’re just as capable as (boys).”

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Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, https://www.tuscaloosanews.com

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