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Booker High School’s Engineering Program Ignites Passions, Empowers Females

SARASOTA COUNTY, May 17, 2019 – When Maria Sanchez-Vasquez talks about the first time she boarded an airplane, her eyes well up with tears.

“I was really excited,” she said. “It made me cry just to board the plane because I knew I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.”

The 15-year-old Booker High School engineering student, who aspires to become a pilot, was given the opportunity to fly to attend the southeastern regional Sea Air and Land Challenge (SeAL) in Suffolk, VA, along with her engineering teachers and design team on May 11. The Challenge, part of the High School STEM Engineering program, gives students the chance to compete with vehicles they’ve designed to traverse land, water, or the air. The entire trip was made possible through the generosity of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Bob and Mary King Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

Although Sanchez-Vasquez’s goal is to become a pilot, she and her team built a submarine for the competition, and they took home the “Most Innovative” award for their vehicle. Along with her teammates, Ericka Martinez and Josie McCrea, Sanchez-Vasquez represents a shift at Booker High School of including more females into STEM studies, and the success of these students in a male-dominated field is giving school Principal Dr. Rachel Shelley yet another accomplishment to be proud of.

“The fact that these girls are defying the odds—and two of them are Hispanic—is an indication that what we are doing at Booker High School is working. We must close the achievement gap and give our girls the chance to compete on par with their male counterparts,” Shelley said.

Statistics show that that women represent only about 20 percent of all students who pursue STEM fields in college, and among black and Hispanic populations, that number is decidedly smaller at less than five percent of all females.

Under the leadership of Tina and Tony McCrea, the teaching team that leads the Booker High Engineering program, more girls have been enrolling, and Vasquez-Sanchez said it’s just positive word of mouth that’s attracting students, regardless of race or gender. Her decision to enroll was based on a friend’s endorsement of the program. And she’s glad she enrolled.

“All our lives in school, we’re told what to do,” she said. “In engineering, it’s different. They just say, ‘Okay, make something’ and give us the support to whatever we come up with. This gives us the chance to discover what interests us.”

The award-winning submarine exemplifies the process of hands-on problem solving and applied knowledge that STEM classes are known to nurture. Sanchez-Vasquez said that the team gave the submarine a different design, a triangle base rather than a square base, to make it more easily balanced and navigable. When parts they ordered didn’t come in on time to complete the building by the deadline, they used CAD to design parts and 3-D print them. The entire construction was completed in about two weeks, from building the circuit board to placing finishing touches like the claw.

While the competition involved simulation—the submarine had to find an object, pick it up, and deliver it to an assigned destination—the real-world applications are myriad. Sanchez-Vasquez said that this is exactly the type of vehicle that would be used to locate and retrieve airplane black-boxes that contain clues after downed flights.

Sanchez-Vasquez said that this experience, and her engineering class in general, have inspired her to achieve her goal of pursuing a career in aviation. Her parents, immigrants from Mexico, also have encouraged her, instilling in her the belief that she can accomplish whatever she strives to do.

Being on that first airplane also ignited her passion to spend her life flying them.

“I believe that I could see other parts of the world, all while keeping everyone on board safe,” she said. “That motivates me—looking beyond what I already know.”