Fort Mill Times

A playground problem? Technical? One Fort Mill school has just the girls for the job.

Girls at Fort Mill Elementary School got a lesson in STEM, including the need for more girls like them to participate.
Girls at Fort Mill Elementary School got a lesson in STEM, including the need for more girls like them to participate. jmarks@fortmilltimes.com

There’s girl power, and then there’s girl-powered.

Fort Mill Elementary School took aim at the latter Thursday, with nearly 90 girls gathering for a STEM workshop to tackle a problem. The playground problem, sure. But a larger one they face, too.

“Girls are really interested in STEM kinds of things up until about middle school and high school,” said Michelle Walker, technology teacher at the school. “And then it starts to drop off.”

The result is relatively few women in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — careers. About 24 percent of those jobs belong to women, she said, and the rate drops further still in engineering. Walker and workshoppers Thursday agreed that isn’t good for anyone.

“We want a good diversity of ideas in solving problems in our world,” she said.

The after school workshop went with a local concern to drive the point home. The nonprofit group All Play Together wants to put a new playground in Fort Mill. One all children, including those in wheelchairs, using walkers or with other special needs, can use. Fort Mill donated land at its coming park in Waterside on the Catawba. All Play Together needs to raise about $500,000 to make the park happen.

“We’re at about a third of that goal,” said founder Lori Christison. “We started fundraising last spring.”

The park at Waterside will include new ball fields, replacing ones lost with an agreement last fall allowing the town to take ownership of the recreation complex on Tom Hall Street while Leroy Springs & Co. keeps and could redevelop the property the fields now occupy. Construction on the Waterside park should begin this year.

Providing a little push of urgency for All Play Together.

“Clearly, we’re on their time line,” Christison said. “Ideally when they open the park we’ll have the fundraising done and we’ll be ready to go.”

Walker used the coming playground as a problem for workshoppers to solve. A problem parents in the Fort Mill area face each day.

“Have you ever tried to push a stroller through mulch?” Jenny Fike asked girls Thursday. “It’s really hard.”

Fike has a first-grader who uses a walker. Meaning typical playgrounds often aren’t accessible to him. The family travels to Duke University, where a playground near the medical facility has zip lines and rope swings anyone can use.

“That is our dream, for a playground like that in Fort Mill,” Fike said. “And not just for him. For all of us.”

Students pondered double-wide sidewalks, fenced equipment, solid paths from parking lot to play structures and a smooth surface beneath them. Girls worked in teams on prototypes. They had to “buy” tape, buttons, popsicle sticks and a wide range of other items at “Girl Depot.” Including glitter slime. So much glitter slime.

Girls had to work within a budget limiting what they could make. They still had to produce several structures and demonstrate accessibility.

“We’re trying to earn more dollars to get the equipment that we need,” said second-grader Mia Ohanian. “We’re trying to build a model.”

The best part?

“Just working together,” she said. “Being social.”

Kate Bodel, a fifth-grader, worked on several play structures.

“It really uses a lot of teamwork to communicate with your partners, so you can know what you’re doing,” she said. “It really helps to know everyone can play.”

Bodel sees no reason why more girls her age – and more women once they’re old enough to enter the workforce – can’t work in STEM fields.

“We get really excited about having the chance to be engineers,” she said.

Students got a little expert advice from someone experiencing his own version of being underrepresented in a room. Steve Hare is a regional sales manager for Landscape Structures, Inc. Hare is working with All Play Together on its plan. He also lives in Fort Mill.

“Playing is a really essential part of life,” Hare said. “It’s a really essential part of being a child. The key is, you have to create the right place for them to do it.”

Hare knows play equipment, and he was impressed with the ideas coming from the workshop groups. Some of it similar to designs already in the works for the actual park. There even may be a market for inclusive playground equipment designers by the time these girls hit the job market.

“It’s a big trend,” Hare said of inclusive playgrounds. “It used to be just something you’d see in larger cities, but now you’re seeing it in more places. More people have been to one, and they come back saying why don’t we have one?”

Which is, in a way, what Walker hopes to accomplish with girls at Fort Mill Elementary. Give them a problem and a fun time solving it, and let them come back asking, why not again?

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