On a cold December morning, fifth-grade teams at Simpson-Waverly School in Hartford are making skyscrapers.
Well, not skyscrapers, exactly. But they're using the same building principles to make a tower out of different-sized straws, pipe cleaners, and paper clips.
The goal is to make the tallest structure that can also hold a 100-gram weight. At one table, Arianah Hamilton, Chanae Chavis, and Marialee Gonzalez are the first to build something that holds the weight. They hide their design so no one copies them. They've got some time, so they focus on strengthening it.
Today's class is a workshop run by Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology. It's a local nonprofit that tries to get kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, field. The group has a particular focus on getting girls on board.
"What we've known to be true about young women, is that we can get them engaged in engineering and in manufacturing. But most of all, young women want to make a difference,” said Sue Palisano, director of education and workforce development at CCAT.
"And interestingly enough -- at least in the grade levels we're talking about -- we find that young women are actually a little better than the boys at following directions, at being able to sort of problem solve, and be able to think a little bit more logically and apply those science concepts,” Palisano said.
A recent 52-country study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, found that girls are better at collaborative problem solving. And, the study found, girls are more likely to want others to succeed.
Back at Simpson-Waverly, that group of girls from earlier are now scrambling to make their structure taller, after realizing that another group's design was taller than theirs. The other group was also led by two girls.
As the time ticks by, they struggle. CCAT teacher Calvin Brown counts the final seconds.
Brown and his colleague, Kristi Oki, walk the room with a tape measure. The only groups to make something that held the weight were led by girls. Although one group -- led by boys -- did find a creative way to complete the task.
"So this group took an interesting approach,” Brown said, as other students laugh.
After failing to make a tower that held the weight, the boys made a small gap between two desks, then laid the straw across the gap, and set the weight on it. The girls in the group rolled their eyes at the final project.
"This looks a little more like what? Instead of a tower, it's looks like what? Brown asked.
"A bridge,” the students replied.
"A bridge, good.... It's an artistic concept of a tower,” he said.
Two of the girls who came in second place said they'd like a career in manufacturing or engineering. On the winning team, though, Eleidy Pizarro-Osario and Asia Odum are not as interested. It might be because of their male teammates.
"One thing I hate about it is that some people, don't like to communicate with other people,” Asia said.
"That's just sad,” Eleidy replied.
"It's true though!"
The percentage of women in manufacturing jobs peaked in 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Women have steadily left the field, and today, their presence in manufacturing jobs is the same as it was in the 1970s.
So what gives? Sue Palisano said there are often misconceptions about what a manufacturing job could actually be.
"I think we're actually doing a decent job with the current generation of dispelling a lot of those misconceptions about what manufacturing is,” Palisano said. “We could be doing a better job, we've got to get the message out more broadly, especially to young women and to urban youth."
An organization called Women in Manufacturing has studied this issue. In an emailed statement, Allison Grealis, president of the group, said that many women don't know about available opportunities. And as technology advances, these jobs become increasingly attractive to women, because the skills needed are more diverse, and challenging.
“What used to take brawn, now just takes brains,” Grealis said. “Technology has created opportunities for talented women with STEM skills.”
Simpson-Waverly principal Leo Watson said it's also about having role models.
"When our young ladies see people that look like them in that field, and then having a conversation about how to get there, that's so valuable,” Watson said.
Connecticut manufacturers exported over $13 billion in goods in 2016, though the market has been declining since 2013.