SWE volunteers inspire elementary students

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Above: Teacher Michelle Gallagher poses with SWE volunteers Katherine Garcia, Abigail Brown and Sahithy Gudavalli.

“Be awesome,” is written in all capital letters across the white board in Michelle Gallagher’s classroom. There are opened boxes of pasta on every table, their contents spilling out as each small hand reaches in to grab a handful. Three Texas A&M University engineering students have taken over the Gifted and Talented program at Spring Creek Elementary School in College Station.

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The volunteers are members of Texas A&M’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and their outreach program is SWE Inspire. On this day, they’re helping Gallagher’s class build a Ferris wheel using pasta noodles, construction paper and glue. It’s an exercise in problem solving and teamwork — all fundamental aspects of engineering. 

Sahithy Gudavalli, a petroleum major, is the SWE Inspire Officer, or volunteer coordinator. She said the experiments and projects they work on with the kids aren’t about competing.

“I don’t like to focus on that,” she said. “It’s not about the accuracy of the project. It’s about the design process.”

Gudavalli holds the “wheel” of pasta in the air and asks fourth-grader Gage Watson how it is supposed to spin.

“I don’t know,” he says.

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Gudavalli asks again, rewording her question this time. The students try a different method, and then another, before the Ferris wheel spins the way it should. Without even realizing it, they just learned the engineering process.

Chemical engineering major Abigail Brown said she went to an engineering camp when she was a child, and it really inspired her to consider engineering as a career. That’s why she signed up for SWE Inspire — so she could provide that same encouragement she received to the next generation of engineers.

With the US Department of Commerce projecting a 17 percent growth in careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) from 2008 to 2018,  inspiring children to become STEM professionals is an important endeavor. 

As a female engineering student, Brown said the program is also a way to show young children that anyone can be an engineer.

“Within engineering, women are minorities,” she said. “Some kids think it’s not cool for girls to like science, but it really is.”

These students won’t graduate from high school until 2023 and they have a lot of time to figure out their career path.

Having positive, female role models explain science and engineering in an engaging way is a step in the right direction.

Only time will tell, but one of these fourth-graders could grow up to cure cancer or solve world hunger. Until then, SWE Inspire volunteers will continue to teach local school children about the many ways they can have fun solving problems.