Using Fashion to Address Ecological Needs on Hillel’s Campus

Every year, Scheck Hillel Community School provides students with new, innovative programs to help harness their creativity and learn new problem-solving techniques. One of these many initiatives is the Girls Build STEAM program created by Mrs. Penchev for girls in grades 3-5. This program was created to get young girls excited about STEM and not get discouraged and drop out of the male-dominated field. “It started off as a short, thirty minute after-school program in which a few girls would come and do fun little projects, like see what cheese balls and air have in common by blowing the cheese balls across the table, and then we did the crayon art where you melt the crayons on the paper. We did a lot of things that we could start in class and then they could go home and keep working on the projects. We made ice cream in a bag and all that kind of stuff,” explained Penchev. Once she received her first grant, Mrs. Penchev was able to get money for more supplies and gained the ability to meet for an hour once a week. Soon, more and more girls started to attend the after school sessions, and some of the original members moved to middle school and still wanted to participate in the STEAM projects. However, they did not have anything to do because the program didn’t extend into middle school. Thus, Girls Build STEAM Designing the Future: Using Fashion to Address Ecological Needs was born.

In 2019’s program of Girls Build STEAM, girls in third through fifth grade will team up with a female mentor from grades 6-10 to research and create wearable fashion that will bring attention to some of the ecological problems in South Florida. In the month of February, students are going to find a problem they are interested in, research it, and start creating a presentation. According to Penchev, a lot of the students are interested in bringing attention to the dangers of pollution, including the effects it has on sea creatures like dolphins and turtles. “We have a lot of beaches that have closed here in South Florida all the time because of bacteria, so what causes that? The red tide was a huge issue last summer, and with the Everglades being so close, there are also problems in the Everglades too. We are looking at local things because that’s what affects them [the girls],” Penchev reveals. “We can’t really research a problem in Alaska because we are not there and they aren’t gonna want to take that as a personal journey. The things that they see every day, that is what is going to get them more excited.” Once the students decide what ecological problem they want to research, they will be able to connect to Mrs. Penchev’s scientist contacts through Twitter.

In March and April, the girls are going to begin bringing their project to life using fashion design. This could be done through clothing, jewelry, shoes, and more. Many of the upper school mentors have had experience in creating clothing, so they are going to assist the lower school girls so they won’t feel so intimidated in taking on this big project. Penchev explains, “If a third grader came in and saw all of the tenth graders working on these big projects, they would probably be scared to do it. But once they know they have a partner, and that they are working together, that will bring up the lower school girls skills and give the upper school girls the leadership that we need our girls to have.” The girls, however, will not be working completely alone. They will also be assisted by Hillel alumni, parents, STEM teachers, and DesignLab Miami on how to create their own environmentally-friendly fabric and turn it into a full garment.

Throughout the month of May, the students will be focusing on creating a final presentation for their piece. Not only will the girls be creating an informative powerpoint discussing their ecological issue, but they will also work together to create a fashion show to exhibit their pieces, including learning how to work sound and lighting for the stage. The program is going to conclude with an exhibit to auction off the pieces that the girls made to raise money for Kulanu and the Girls Build STEAM program. This way, the Girls Build STEAM program will not have to rely on grants to support itself every year.

“My goal for the Girls Building STEAM is to end the cycle of having girls nationwide drop out of the STEM field (whereas in other countries they stay) and start moving towards other activities,” states Penchev. She wants to make the STEM field more interesting,exciting, and approachable. With this specific project, the girls are able to utilize math as well as their understanding of ecology and activism in order to create their garment. “It is putting everything together in one exciting piece,” Mrs. Penchev affirms. She explains that the girls who have participated in Girls Building STEAM in the past have gone to conferences with international audiences, and they have presented to people who are much older and more experienced than them. Yet they had no problem saying that this is what they love to do. Mrs. Penchev hopes that Girls Build STEAM Designing the Future: Using Fashion to Address Ecological Needs will help further accomplish this goal.


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