ComEd brings local girl power with icebox derby
- October 14, 2014
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Anne Pramaggiore, the first female president and CEO of Chicago utility ComEd, has spent some time focusing on a very important project at her company, one that could change the face of her utility—namely, an icebox derby.
Over six weeks this summer, Pramaggiore and girls from around Chicago spent Wednesday nights working on race vehicles constructed from recycled fridges. Each week represented a different task, but the end goal wasn’t really the checkered flag, it was to get all those girls interested in science careers—perhaps even utility-based ones.
“Our industry has always been driven by technology,” Pramaggiore added. “What’s different now—and what will be different well into the future—is that the technology is changing very fast. It’s longer that 100-year old tech that we’re used to. So, our ability to innovate and deploy tech is our life’s blood. We need the smartest people in our workforce—like these young ladies.” (The lead art for this article features the derby champions.)
Pramaggiore often visited the girls as they worked on their electric derby vehicles, and when she chatted with them about their favorite parts of this program, she heard the same response from almost every girl: They loved being able to use power tools.
“I asked at least 15 of them several times, and they all said ‘power tools.’ Every time. It just goes to show you that we all underestimate the breadth of girls’ interests, especially in what is labeled typically male areas like power tools,” Pramaggiore said.
ComEd’s icebox derby—and that new love of power tools—all came to be out of the utility’s community work and women’s history month. (Pramaggiore called community work like the derby “part of the DNA of this company.”) Typically, Pramaggiore noted, they’d have a panel of women talk to celebrate women’s history, but, this year, they wanted to get girls involved, to get more hands-on. And the derby was born. (And the derby was so successful and so popular, it will continue, she added.)
The derby took a lot of internal and external work. (During the competition, each team was paired with ComEd employees from engineers to safety personnel—all of whom, Pramaggiore said, were incredibly excited to participate—so much so that the positive atmosphere permeated throughout the company.) ComEd also sat down with friends and partners to come up with this challenge, which pairs the utility’s general message of energy efficiency (hence the whole recycled fridges angle) with customization and cultivating STEM in local girl culture.
One of ComEd’s partners in this project, Girls4Science, has a life’s work of cultivating STEM in local girl culture.
Founded in 2009 by executive director Jackie Lomax, Girls4Science, Chicago’s only all-girl science initiative, came to be because of Lomax’s then 10-year-old daughter who wanted to be a dentist (and still does). In looking around the city for ways to keep her daughter interested in a science career, Lomax noticed a dearth of girl-focused science programs. And Girls4Science was born.
While neither Lomax nor Pramaggiore have STEM-based backgrounds, it became vitally important to both to keep STEM options open for girls today.
The partnership of ComEd and Girls4Science (along with a long list of other supporters) in this derby became a way for them to lead by example.
“This program gave these 30 girls the opportunity to have a hands-on experience that was fun and challenging,” Pramaggiore said. “To build a chassis, install an electric motor, to learn to read blueprints. It allowed them to have fun with STEM.”
Lomax added, “The derby really engaged the students’ critical thinking, and they became passionate about the work. One team expressed how they didn’t take a dinner break in order to perfect their steering wheel, and a parent told me how the ride home had changed with the derby. Now, instead of talking about TV, they talk about acceleration and the science behind transportation.”
Lomax revealed that this specific passion about their derby entries has already translated into a general passion for science in many of the girls, some of whom have expressed interest in autoshop classes, becoming pilots and even working for NASA.
“These girls are declaring occupations that they may not have considered possible earlier, and that’s a great positive to come from this derby,” Lomax said. “This is really helping to change the mindset and celebrate STEM.”
Pramaggiore added that, on top of what the girls get directly from the derby, there’s an additional benefit of its visibility and its place as a symbol.
“People can start thinking about what they can be when they see others doing this as well,” she said. “Women are 24% of STEM jobs but 50% of the workforce. Seeing other girls doing this ‘science stuff’ opens up people’s minds to opportunities. It says, ‘You can achieve this, too.’”
That message—and the derby itself—was readily visible on social media where the ComEd mentors, the partners and the girls themselves regularly tweeted on the derby’s progress and challenges with #Empower.
Both Lomax and Pramaggiore hope that empowerment and visibility will carry on well past the final derby results, especially in the girls who participated.
Pramaggiore told all the girls they are the workforce of the future.
“These girls proved to me that they have what I think is the necessary skill set for the future: They learn well. That’s the playbook for success,” she added. “And I also told them, when they come back after college with engineering and science degrees, to knock on our door. We need them.”
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