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02 18 2020

NATO Agency staff volunteer to spark girls' interest in STEM

Staff members from the NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency volunteered on 8 February 2020 to help girls build drones and experiment with robots.

More than 100 girls from several schools in The Hague joined a "g4g Day," a free interactive learning event at The British School in the Netherlands.

The international organization greenlight for girls (g4g), headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, teamed up with the NCI Agency, the European Medicines Agency and other partners including the British School to host the event to encourage girls to explore Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.

The girls, aged 7-12, participated in a jam-packed day of hands-on workshops led by partners and supporters of the events, including Coder Dojo, the European Space Agency, the Dutch Police, Emerson and the Women in Aviation Netherlands Chapter.

"As a space engineer I think it's important to share my experience and excitement for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics with the next generation of engineers," said Laryssa Patten, Portfolio Manager for Space and Alliance Ground Surveillance projects at the NCI Agency.

Patten co-organized the event and ran the NCI Agency workshop.

"Girls should know that the sky is quite literally the limit," Patten said. "I am proud that the NCI Agency has been so supportive of this event."

At the NCI Agency workshop, students made drones out of Legos and practiced flying them in the classroom.

Derya Adiyan, Senior Integrated Logistic Support Officer at the NCI Agency and a volunteer at the event, said the experience was "absolutely amazing."

"Seeing the curiosity in their eyes and happiness in their faces once they built something that actually works is worth hours of effort," Adiyan said. "The best part was that we failed building the drones so many times until we actually made it work, and every time we started from the beginning and tried again without any of the girls giving up."

NATO Agency staff volunteer to spark girls' interest in STEM

According to the UN, only 35 percent of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of study are women.

"We need to intervene at the very beginning: by introducing the school girls at an early age to what is out there in STEM areas, and more importantly, show them that everything is possible and within reach," Adiyan said.

When the first group of attendees received boxes containing the pieces of the drones they were to build, one girl could not hold in her enthusiasm, said Minerva Martir Gallardo, a Senior Project Manager at the NCI Agency and a volunteer at the event.

"One of the girls couldn't prevent herself from saying aloud 'WOOOOOOW we are building it!'" Martir Gallardo said. "It was amazing seeing the face of the girls when they managed to build the drones almost alone, for a matter of time, and saw that they fly!"

The ways science can be applied are not always obvious or accessible, said Pedro Albano, a Senior Scientist at the NCI Agency and a volunteer at the event.

"Theory is interesting once the use is not just lectured, but shown and understood. It is the 'ah ha' moment that is sought," said Albano, who is a NATO instructor with two daughters. "That for me is one of the main features of these type of events."

Rebecca, a 9-year-old attendee, said the event was fun because she learned new things.

"I get to be active and do loads of experiments that you don't get to do in school a lot," Rebecca said. "In school, you're doing more writing and you don't have the resources and drones. But here you have loads of robotics."

Ana Pinheiro, a Geographic Information Systems Scientist at the NCI Agency and a volunteer at the event, said another Agency volunteer brought two HEXBUGs, mini robots with sensors, for the attendees to see.

"There was one though that was really weird. It looked like a larva but believe it or not there was one girl begging to take it home as a pet. She even gave it a name, 'Cutie,'" Pinheiro said.

Pinheiro said she volunteered to contribute because she really believes in the cause.

"These events are extremely important because they give awareness to the girls at an age where they soon will be making choices about what they want to do as a job," Pinheiro said. "These events are empowering their future choices."

Events such as this are important to show girls that every domain, including science, is open to all, Albano said.

"Focusing on girls means that they feel empowered, special and shown that there are and have been great strides in science because of women," Albano said.

Bob Essad, Branch Head of Operations Support Services at the NCI Agency, volunteered to have an impact on girls who do not know their career potential.

"The g4g programme provided them insight to what the possibilities are for these careers, and more importantly, it gives them some understanding of what the different jobs might be like," Essad said.

Martir Gallardo said her father pushed her to pursue studies in engineering.

"When it came to choose my studies, though I was good at maths, engineering was not in the top of my list, as I thought I was not good enough," Martir Gallardo said. "Now, I feel I have to help others to prevent them from having those same thoughts, by showing that STEM is not so frightening."

Dalia, an 11-year-old attendee who enjoys science and maths, is considering a career where she could do science experiments, like biology or chemistry.

"First I was a bit 'uh I don't really want to do it.' But actually it's quite fun," Dalia said of the event. "I'm learning a lot of stuff. We learned a lot about sensors, and how they work, and radars. And we made a drone."

Aleks Lubierska, Project Management Principle Assistant at the NCI Agency and a volunteer at the event, said a particularly memorable moment was seeing a girl's amazement after crashing the drone she had just built, in a spectacular fashion.

"I really appreciated being given the privilege of showing the girls that they can do something that often is described as 'boys' thing,'" Lubierska said. "It was encouraging and empowering even for me as an adult."

With a little encouragement and guidance from the Agency volunteers, the girl was able to build the drone herself and test it. And when she crashed it, the whole team applauded her.

The Agency volunteers also made a "drone repair center" for the event. After the girls crashed a drone they learned to fix it, including soldering the wires if required.

"We as an Agency, employ some amazing people, who are smart, passionate and dedicated to their jobs, and to sharing their love for what they do," Lubierska said. "I think in our daily work lives we sometime forget the why of being in the Agency. It's amazing and much needed to be reminded."