Angie Riebe

Mesabi Daily News

VIRGINIA — Fifty-three girls from 12 area high schools sit in an auditorium on the Virginia campus of Mesabi Range College, eyes closed, as they follow instructions from Christine Kennedy.

"Imagine you are kind of like me. You like to figure out why things work," Kennedy says.

She explains how, when she was a child, much to her parent's chagrin, Kennedy would mix various household chemicals just to "watch what happened." When she wasn't conducting improvised science experiments, Kennedy was always tinkering with something.

"If the hair dryer broke, I tried to fix it."

Perhaps, Kennedy says to the audience, "you don't really know what to do with your life." But, maybe, problem-solving and investigating how things work sounds appealing.

Kennedy asks the girls to further envision how they would prefer to learn — by active, hands-on "doing" or sitting in a big lecture hall surrounded by students listening to an instructor.

"Open your eyes," she says. "Look around."

That first place exists, she said. "And it's called IRE."

Kennedy, director of Iron Range Engineering, emphasized that she is "not pushing IRE," but rather encouraging the high school girls to consider becoming an engineer and all the possibilities going into the field could hold for their futures.

"You can be an engineer," said Kennedy, who has worked as a mechanical engineer managing multimillion dollar projects, and is also a graduate of IRE's "first generation" class of December 2011.

"If you walk away with nothing else tonight, walk away knowing you can be an engineer."

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IRE's third annual "hashtag night" provided a venue for area 10th to 12th grade girls to "test drive" the diverse field of engineering during the overnight adventure Feb. 23-24 on IRE's campus at MRC.

This year's theme was #WEAreTheFuture.

The capital "W" and "E" stand for IRE's new Women in Engineering Board, created to facilitate interactions among female high school students interested in engineering and student and professional engineers, said Kristina Heineman, IRE student engineer and one of the event's project managers.

Members of each of those groups meet regularly and plan STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) events, including the #Night.

The evening included a speaker, panel discussion with women in the industry and lots of hands-on activities to give the students a taste of what engineering is all about.

After a meal catered by Kunnari's Kitchen Coffee House and a dessert of cupcakes adorned with chocolate hashtags, the girls broke into four teams and set out to explore stations created by IRE students — including an authentic escape room. Each station incorporated one of the STEM areas.

The Purple Team began the evening unlocking a mystery, rather literally.

The dozen girls stood outside a room where windows were covered with black plastic sheets and yellow "crime scene" tape.

They would have 20 minutes inside the room to use their math skills — and a whole lot of teamwork — to unlock four locks holding chain around a metal box. If they could find and use clues hidden around them, they would reveal a surprise inside the box and escape the room.

Little by little they uncovered pieces of paper containing codes tucked inside books and board game boxes. They used black light to decipher one of the problems — eventually leading to an escape in less than the time allotted, revealing some fun trinkets and candy in the box, to boot.

Next, it was on to making ice cream — a science experiment with a sweet ending.

The girls learned about chemical reactions and properties of ice and salt working together as they conducted the simple project of combining milk, sugar and vanilla extract in a small baggie placed inside a larger plastic bag filled with salt and ice cubes.

As they shook and flipped the bag, the creamy mixture began to solidify thanks to something called freezing-point depression, and soon — walla! — vanilla ice cream was ready for toppings of chocolate and caramel sauce.

Then it was on to the technology lab to work on an interactive circuit activity with an Arduino microcontroller board used for building electronic projects.

They followed steps to make a small LED light blink. And an IRE student showed how such technology can be used to accomplish rather fun things, such as outfitting a regular bicycle's frame with flashing lights.

Each student was provided with a kit to take home that included a CD containing 22 programs with possibilities of powering such things as alarm clocks and universal remotes.

Lastly, the girls gathered in a room to try their hand at a variety of engineering activities including building small salt water-powered robots and miniature bridges.

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Alyssa Kolath, a senior at Eveleth-Gilbert, said she almost didn't attend #WEAreTheFuture Night because she didn't really think engineering was something that interested her.

"I thought it was all about big machines and math," she said. "I was really surprised."

After taking part in the circuit board activity and successfully getting a salt water robot to run, "now I'm getting excited," she said.

Attending IRE may easily be in her future — something she really hadn't considered previously, Kolath said.

IRE, a project-based, four-year degree program accredited through Minnesota State University, Mankato, focuses on self-directed learning. Students design their own syllabus and collaborate with local industries on real projects, using problem-solving skills to create solutions.

The hashtag night "let me see engineering really is fun," Kolath added. "I think it's a good thing to come to even if you're not interested in engineering" because, she noted, girls like herself may realize it really is a field they may like to explore.

Speaker Maggie Skelton, a chemical engineer with Minnesota Power, said after she decided to give engineering a shot, people sometimes asked her why she wanted to "drive a train."

Skelton would explain that no, she was not going to be a train conductor. Rather, she would be working to do three main things: Learn how things actually work; figure out how to make things better; and improve upon things to make life easier for other people — now and in the future.

Each year, more girls have come to the #Night; each hashtag aimed at empowering young women. Previous hashtags were: #ilooklikeanengineer and #engineerlikeagirl.

About 35 percent of IRE students are female, Kennedy said. Nationwide, women make up 18 percent of engineering students. However, she said, only 11 percent of those employed in actual industry are female.

Events like #WEAreTheFuture can help to spark girls' interest and assist with closing that gap.

This year's adventure was provided at no cost to the students, thanks to funds from girlsBEST (Building Economic Success Together), a grant-making and public awareness component of the Women's Foundation of Minnesota.

Attendees also had the opportunity to ask questions of a panel of IRE students and females in the industry, including a systems engineer at Cirrus Aircraft in Duluth and an electrical engineer with Minnesota Power.

Kendall Swenson, of Twin Cities Engineering (a program similar to IRE) and an engineer with an agricultural technology company in Mankato, Minn., said engineering is a good field for people like her, who have had difficulty deciding a career path. It's such a huge industry, and there is often something of interest to everyone.

Not to mention, she said, "you make really decent money right away." And, despite engineering's reputation, "you don't have to be a genius."

When asked what class she most enjoyed, non-traditional IRE senior Ariana Boyd said years ago she would have answered "theater" or "English."

"Now, it's physics," she said. "You see it everywhere. You just can't help it."

The event was a "safe place" to ask questions; students were additionally able to text questions if they didn't want to inquire in front of the group.

"How often do you encounter sexism?" texted one of the participants.

A member of the panel told the recent story of a man assuming she was an administrative assistant at Minnesota Power, then stating "they must have made school easy" for her to become an engineer.

It happens, said Julie Marinucci, a mining engineer from Hibbing. "But you run into it everywhere," not only in male-dominated fields, she said. "Be the change you want to be," she said.

There are lots of "male allies" out there in the field, and women in engineering tend to "have each other's backs," said members of the panel.

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The #Nights are "one of my favorite events throughout the entire year," Kennedy said.

Activities are changed up each time so girls who have attended previously get to experience new things, she said.

The #WEAreTheFuture Night wrapped up with a game of laser tag and a Nerf War, along with a candy bar, popcorn and snacks for viewing of the movie, "Hidden Figures." The event even had its own customized Snapchat filter on the popular app, and the girls posed for photos wearing silly lit-up glasses and rings.

The following day rounded out with breakfast and a hands-on woodworking art project using pallet wood.

Rebecka Stickney, a sophomore in International Falls, said beyond all she learned at #WEAreTheFuture Night, "it's been fun meeting new people."

"I'm glad I got to experience this," said Tayea Wheeler, a junior at Hibbing High School. "It's really cool."

Is she interested in becoming an engineer?

"Yes," she said with a smile. But before #WEAreTheFuture Night, "I didn't know I was."

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