Birmingham-area girls get energized about engineering at Alabama Power conference

Birmingham-area girls get energized about engineering at Alabama Power conference
The 2018 iCan conference gave more than 100 middle school girls the chance to explore three fields of engineering through hands-on activities. (contributed)

Cameron Vines learned Saturday that there’s more to her mom’s job than she realized.

The sixth-grader from Hewitt-Trussville Middle School took part in the annual iCan Girls in Engineering Conference April 14, along with her mom, Brandi Vines, Alabama Power Distribution Innovation project manager, who has worked in the field of engineering since 2003.

“Cameron told me she thought the conference was going to be full of boring speakers,” said Brandi, “but instead, it was a lot of fun, hands-on activities. I’m glad she had the opportunity to see what it means to be an engineer from someone other than me.”

During the annual daylong conference, more than 100 girls from 50 middle schools in the Greater Birmingham area and their parents got the chance to interact with female engineering professionals from Alabama Power and Southern Company, and learned that the doors are wide open for young women interested in pursuing technical careers. The students and their parents participated in hands-on projects that allowed them to experience engineering in action.

“A lot of these girls don’t have a strong technical role model,” said Kelsey Stephens, engineer, Alabama Power Substations-Birmingham. “When they can actually see women who are working in engineering and when they get to take part in these hands-on activities, it allows them to picture themselves as engineers, something they may not have been able to do before.”

iCan Conference promotes engineering fields to Alabama girls from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The conference at Alabama Power Corporate Headquarters was divided into two tracts. The girls worked in teams on three projects – each focused on a different engineering discipline.

The teams got a closer look at electrical engineering by building a working flashlight and learned about aerodynamics, propulsion and mechanical engineering by designing a car made from water bottles and balloons.

The final project, which demonstrated civil engineering and structural design, was a competition in which the teams were challenged to make high-heeled shoes from poster board, blocks, duct tape and other materials. The winning shoe was selected as the girls modeled their creations on stage during their own fashion show.

Meanwhile, the moms and dads got tips on how they can help their daughters prepare for technical careers as they move through high school and college. They tried their hand at engineering by building paper towers that had to withstand wind propulsion.

“We invite parents to this conference because it’s important to get them on board as well as the girls,” said Stephens. “We try to help parents know what to look for as they help their girls choose high school extracurricular activities and a college. If girls don’t start preparing for engineering early, it’s less likely that they will take the advanced high school courses they will need to get them ready for college. College could be much more difficult for them if they choose engineering as a high school senior.”

Jason Williams, Alabama Power drafter in Transmission Survey/Mapping, said his daughter, Anna Grace, a seventh-grader at Liberty Park Middle School, declared after the conference that she wants to be an engineer. Williams is among the dads who came with their daughters to the conference.

“Anna Grace enjoys Legos and playing games like Minecraft and Survivalcraft, and she is very artsy and likes to create things,” said Williams, who has worked in various engineering disciplines for 22 years. “She has also watched me work on drafting projects at home, and we’ve talked about what engineers do. The conference allowed Anna Grace to see engineering from a female perspective, something I could not do for her, and showed her that engineering ties together all the things she loves.”

The conference is part of Alabama Power’s decade-old iCan Girls in Engineering program, which introduces middle school female students to technical careers through training and mentoring opportunities. The springtime conference allows iCan volunteers to broaden their reach, providing their engineering message to more girls across central Alabama.

The day was eye-opening for Charlotte Brown.

“I really liked making the flashlight and balloon car,” said the Wetumpka Middle School student. “I never really thought I could do something like that using the materials that we did it with, and it really opened new doors for me and showed me a new experience I’d like to try.”

Stephens, along with Transmission Substation Services Engineer Emily Hupy, lead the conference team of more than 30 volunteers.

“I wasn’t interested in engineering in high school until I got involved in a robotics program, and my teacher said it might be something that would interest me,” said Stephens, an iCan volunteer for six years. “It’s nice now to be able to give back to these girls what my teacher did for me and let them know that engineering might be a career that they would enjoy.”

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