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'Girls can do unimaginable things:' Conference inspires Utah girls to pursue STEM careers

CLEARFIELD — Erica Sandoval said when she started college, she thought she wanted to be a fashion designer.

But little did she know, years later she would discover — believe it or not — sewing wasn't too different than rocket science.

"Sewing is taking different pieces of cloth and putting them together," she said. "Sewing is assembling, and making a rocket is assembling. Once I figured that out, I realized I could do engineering — it's just understanding parts and figuring out how they go together."

Now a rocket scientist — a senior principal manufacturing engineer at Orbital ATK, the global aerospace and defense technologies company — Sandoval said she's not only got ultimate "bragging rights," but she's also got a cool, high-paying and rewarding career.

Today, Sandoval is a lead engineer working on a rocket launch abort system for NASA's next rocket to launch astronauts in space — a system to safely eject astronauts back to Earth if something goes wrong.

Sandoval told her career story Saturday to an auditorium full of girls in sixth through ninth grades attending the Expanding Your Horizons conference at North Davis Junior High in Clearfield.

The conference — in its 17th year — was sponsored by Orbital ATK in partnership with Davis School District and the Utah Math/Science Network.

More than 400 girls attended this year's conference, part of a national effort to inspire young women to pursue careers in math, science, engineering and technology.

With 27 different hands-on workshops — from makeshift rocket launches to mock oil drills — the aim is to give young women of Utah "just a glimpse of all the possibilities they have for their future and what they can do," even in careers that are dominated by men, said Hillary Searle, spokeswoman with Orbital ATK.

Women in professions ranging from engineering to neurology taught the workshops, Searle said.

"We're always looking to the future of science, technology engineering and math careers," Searle said. "We're looking for our engineers that will take us to Mars and deep space, so anything we can do to encourage the students of today to take us there, we're excited to be a part of it."

She said the students at Saturday's conference came from about 75 different schools throughout northern Utah. Over Expanding Your Horizon's 17 years, more than 6,000 young women have attended the conference.

After hearing from Sandoval, 11-year-old Clara Caldwell, a sixth-grader at Doxey Elementary, tried her own hand at rocket science — minus the flames and fuel.

Her supplies: Diet Coke, Mentos, Alka-Seltzer and a film canister.

First, Clara tried an Alka-Seltzer tablet and Coke, but it only shot up from the ground a few feet. Then she tried one Mentos tablet and one Alka-Seltzer, but it only foamed. Then Clara tried Coke and four Alka-Seltzer tablets — and the film canister shot high up into the air, almost touching the gymnasium ceiling.

"I think science is awesome. I even ruin my science teacher's lessons sometimes because I know so much about it already," she said sheepishly.

Clara said she wants to work for NASA and build rockets when she grows up, and maybe help send astronauts to space. "This is really going to help me figure it out," she said.

Clara said if a boy told her math and science and engineering was just for boys, she would "get really mad."

"Girls can do unimaginable things," she said, smiling.