At Toppenish High School on Thursday, there was very little sitting still or listening to lectures.
“We think you folks are close enough to adults that you can be trusted with power tools,” Jenni Buckley, a mechanical engineer and founder of the Perry Initiative, told the 25 high school girls before leading them down to the science labs.
The Perry Initiative, a national program not related to the Perry Technical Institute in Yakima, aims to increase young women’s participation in science and technology. As part of the educational outreach she does across the United States, Buckley, based in Delaware and San Francisco, was invited to Toppenish to demonstrate the practical applications of engineering and orthopedic surgery to some of the female students enrolled in the school’s biomedical and engineering classes.
In the science lab, three tables held the morning’s projects: spinal models at one end, on which the girls screwed metal rods to correct for scoliosis; large, raw cow tongues in the middle, to practice surgical suturing; and fake femur bones, which they sawed through and then screwed back together to simulate setting fractures. Instructors shouted over the buzz of electric drills and saws.
None of the girls hesitated to stick a needle through the cow’s tongue, or even thought it was gross.
“It’s interesting,” said Rosario Guel as she focused on keeping her sutures evenly spaced.
In the afternoon, the groups fixed a fractured hip, a fractured pelvis and a torn ACL in simulated procedures.
Currently, women make up only about 15 percent of bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering. And only 7 percent of practicing orthopedic surgeons are women.
“You’ve got a lot of talented women in high school, who could go into (those fields), but they’re not making that jump,” Buckley said. “That’s why I think we need another approach.”
Toppenish has been recognized as a statewide leader in expanding its STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses in recent years.
But Buckley says students — girls in particular — still need to see more of the human connection in those careers. In her work, for instance, she’s developed new technology to improve procedures like correcting sunken chests in adolescent boys.
That kind of example is good for students like Brenda Garcia, 16, who’s not sure what she wants to do when she graduates, but knows she wants to help people. Maybe pediatrics, she says.
“I think (this) is important because it shows us how, in reality, things work, and if you want to go into these types of fields it’ll help you out — it’ll get you a step ahead,” she said in between suturing and bone-sawing.
Principal Trevor Greene was excited to have the Perry Initiative come to Toppenish. Buckley is a professor at the University of Delaware and the University of California in San Francisco, where she also is the chief scientific officer of the Taylor Collaboration at St. Mary’s Medical Center.
The Perry Initiative, now in its fifth year, reaches 950 girls annually, with programs at the Mayo Clinic and Stanford University. It’s named in honor of Dr. Jacquelin Perry, who was one of the first 10 women orthopedic surgeons in the country.
“It’s just a great opportunity for our young ladies and probably one that we won’t have for a while,” Greene said. “I like the idea of all students believing that they can achieve anything. So for me, this is an opportunity to target a specific group, our female population, and ... let them know that no matter what the naysayers would say, that they are capable of high-level careers in the STEM professions.”
That kind of encouragement is beneficial not only for the young women who will go into those careers, Buckley says, but for the population at large.
“The field misses out on some top talent” when women are so vastly under-represented, she said. “A lot of the design and innovation needs a broader perspective. Because women are now in the field ... gender-specific implants are starting to come out. We’re taking more of a look at health disparities by gender and by race.”
And more women in the field means more role models for students like Liz Arellano, 16. She’s used to the power tools because she works on projects with her dad, but thinks girls are more likely to be insecure about their career chances.
“I think if there was more women, they’d be like, ‘We can do this,’” she said.
• Molly Rosbach can be reached at 509-577-7728 or firstname.lastname@example.org.