As an educator, one of my missions is to help provide the foundation for my students to build on throughout their lives. No matter where they wish to go or what they wish to do, I want them to have the foundational skills necessary to accomplish their goals. But having worked for 28 years in a large and diverse school district, I know that sometimes the vision kids have for themselves has been limited by the time they reach high school.

Sometimes that vision is affected by stereotypical views or negative experiences with a given field of study. This occurrence is especially prevalent in STEM fields. According to a study by Microsoft, girls show interest in STEM subjects similarly to boys at age 11, but this interest wanes by age 15. When asked why, many girls cite the lack of female role models in STEM. Young women often don’t pursue STEM prospects because those careers are not seen as occupations for “people like them.”

At Copper Hills High School in West Jordan, UT, I tell my students that one of the most important skills they can gain is the ability to advocate for themselves and for others. I want students to learn how to take and defend a position. One of my seniors, Cassey Ivie, has taken this advice to heart. She was recently recognized by 4-H as the National Youth in Action winner for the truly amazing work she is doing. The 4-H Youth in Action Awards, sponsored in part by HughesNet, began in 2010 to recognize 4-Hers who have overcome challenges and used the knowledge they gained in 4-H to create a lasting impact in their community.

Engaging Everyone

Ivie has been involved in science and technology projects since early childhood, but as she grew older, she realized that her experience was not typical for other girls her age. As she volunteered in 4-H and after-school programs, she saw firsthand that low-income students and those in rural areas often had limited access to STEM programs. Because Ivie is a proactive thinker, she wanted to change that.

Ivie instituted a program to encourage girls, minorities, and other underrepresented groups to find their passion in STEM fields. She created the Incredible Machine kits that include a curriculum and everyday materials teachers and mentors can use to introduce students to five areas of engineering—civil, electrical, software, chemical, and mechanical. “The goal of the program is to help youth who might be a little wary of STEM subjects to turn the question of ‘What if …’ into ‘Watch this!’ I want to help students see their potential in STEM and find a path to achieve their goals,” Ivie says.

Ivie received a $6,500 grant to fund 10 Incredible Machine kits for use in low-​income and rural areas of Utah. In addition to building the kits and writing the curriculum, she also leads classes with the kits and encourages kids who might have already given up on the idea of a career in STEM to discover the same excitement she feels for science and math.

Making the Program Fun

Ivie generates excitement in STEM by making programs fun and hands-on. After the students complete the introduction to all five engineering areas, she introduces them to an Incredible Machine challenge in which they build a Rube Goldberg machine (using a complicated way to solve a simple problem) that incorporates concepts from at least three types of engineering they have learned. Ivie’s goal is to encourage elementary and middle school students to see the value of science and math classes through hands-on experience. “The beautiful thing about STEM is it is an enabler,” Ivie says. “Regardless of the profession being pursued, a basic understanding of technology can enhance and strengthen a skill set.”

Her project has been used in daytime and after-school programs in four different Utah school districts, as well as in homes and 4-H clubs throughout the state. In addition, portions of her program have been presented to well over 3,000 youths in events such as community STEM Fests, Maker Faires, county fairs, and numerous other community STEM events.

Now, Ivie is working to move the curriculum to the online Discover 4-H curriculum format developed by Utah State University and make it readily available to anyone interested. Her next goal is to find resources to fund an Incredible Machine kit to be housed in each county extension office in the state, and provide training to both youth and adult leaders so that it is in active use by every community in Utah, inspiring generations of young students to come.

Ivie is a truly amazing student who has not only inspired other students, but also anyone who has witnessed what she has accomplished. “Cassey is the kid you want your kid to hang out with. She is incredibly well-rounded, an aggressive learner, and a fierce advocate for herself and her fellow students,” says Rickee Stewart, Copper Hills High School’s Future Business Leaders of America adviser. “She sees the world on a deeper level than her peers and maintains an impressive perspective on her potential to make change.”

In addition to the Incredible Machine project, Ivie was wrapping up six AP classes last school year and has won numerous state and national competitions in robotics and other disciplines. “She has an incredible brain with an unparalleled ability to take new concepts and apply them at a level that far exceeds her peers,” says Steve Haslam, SLAM poetry and newspaper adviser. “When she’s around, there is a firm faith that things will get done. There’s also a sense of hope that something new, refreshing, and powerful is going to happen.”

Today, Ivie attends Utah State University and continues her program through Collegiate 4-H. I have no doubt that the work she has done with the Incredible Machine will result in many other students following her path to continue their education in STEM and pursue a career in engineering, math, or the sciences—a path that they might have assumed was not open to them before she opened their eyes.

Sometimes teaching can seem like a Rube Goldberg machine. We are often patching together disparate items that don’t seem to go together in order to make a surprising and functional machine. When a student such as Ivie steps up to solve a problem, you know that the machine is working together beautifully, and it gives you inspiration to keep striving to find new ways to break through boundaries and overcome a lack of resources to reach every student who comes through the doors.

Todd Quarnberg is the principal of Copper Hills High School in West Jordan, UT, and president of the Utah Association of Secondary School Principals.