A girl with purple tips in her hair scrunched her face and stuck out her tongue as she stretched a rubber band around the length of a D-cell battery.

It was just the beginning of the struggle for Chloe Ferber and her partner, Vinaya Kurapati, who each huddled over the battery in a box-like classroom at Santa Fe Community College, trying to magnetize a nail.

They coiled a wire five times around the nail, attached the wire to the battery and tried to pick up some paper clips. Nothing. They tried 10 coils, the threshold where most groups could pick up at least one paper clip; still nothing.

Vinaya suggested recoiling the wire. Chloe thought maybe the pair needed a new battery. Then an instructor came by and stripped the ends of their wire: problem solved.

With 11 coils, the girls nabbed their first paper clip. With 20, they’d made it to two. By 35 coils, they had picked up seven paper clips with the nail.

“You know, in science we fail a lot because that’s how we learn,” Imelda Atencio, leader of the “Magnets & Motors” workshop, told the group of a dozen fifth- and sixth-graders a few minutes later. “Failure should not be a bad word. If something doesn’t work right, you think of new ways to make it better.”

Overcoming setbacks was just one lesson for scores of girls who participated in Saturday’s science, technology, engineering and math conference at the college, hosted by the nonprofit STEM Santa Fe. The annual conference, called Expanding Your Horizons, was developed as an opportunity for girls to pursue careers in STEM fields, and to encourage innovation and creative thinking.

Around 180 girls from grades 5-8 participated Saturday, STEM Santa Fe organizers said. The workshop started with a keynote speech by France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation.

Córdova, an astrophysicist, told the girls that when she was young, women didn’t have the same encouragement to join STEM fields. In high school, she and other girls had to petition to be let into the boys-only physics class, she said.

In college, she studied English instead of science or engineering.

After graduating from Stanford University and working as a writer, Córdova’s scientific yearnings were rekindled when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, she said.

Afterward, she went back to school to study physics, worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, became the first female chief scientist for NASA, worked as a university administrator and now runs the “only government agency charged with advancing all fields of scientific discovery,” according to the National Science Foundation’s website.

Córdova’s journey has been a challenging and rewarding one, she told the girls. And now, she said, it’s their turn to start their own journeys.

“The part to remember is you can be yourself, with all of your interests and talents, whatever they are, and still be a great scientist or engineer,” Córdova said. “… Give yourselves permission to shine.”

After her talk, dozens of girls lined up at a microphone to question Córdova, asking the astrophysicist everything from her advice for young female engineers to what the her favorite planet is. (Córdova told the girls she has a healthy respect for Jupiter, which has spared the Earth from calamity by changing the path of potential collision materials.)

Then the girls set off for some hands-on work. In one classroom, fifth- and sixth-graders used microscopes to examine algae and learned how the slimy substance is being used as a biofuel. In another room, seventh- and eighth-graders used straws, plastic cups and masking tape to build flag poles in a civil engineering workshop. They tested the strength of their poles with a fan.

At the end of the workshop, Dalila Santos, an eighth-grader at Monte del Sol Charter School, decided she’d keep her tape-and-plastic flagpole as a memento. It had, after all, withstood fan-created, “hurricane-force” winds for a make-believe civil engineering project in Florida.

“I’m very proud of it,” Dalila said of her creation. “A skinny stick stood for a hurricane.”

When she grows up, Dalila hopes to be an aerospace engineer, she said, a passion inspired by her third-grade teacher.

“It’s just my passion to create things,” she said.

Chloe also likes to create. The best part of the morning magnet and motors workshop, she said, was working with her hands.

She learned plenty about science, engineering — and fortitude, too.

“It taught me — first of all, I didn’t know you could make a magnet,” Chloe said. And, after working through trial and error on building her first magnet, she said: “I learned that anything could be probably achievable.”

This year’s conference is a launching point for an ongoing series of events said Lina Germann, founder of STEM Santa Fe. Parents of the girls at Saturday’s STEM workshop were invited to sign up for a text alert that will let them know about ongoing STEM opportunities.

“We’re going to try to boost their interest in STEM throughout the year,” Germann said, “and really be a support system and a resource for them.”


Sami Edge covers public-safety issues for Santa Fe New Mexican and follows developments in this year's fire season.

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