At Colorado State University’s annual summer institute that teaches girls about careers in the construction industry, a participant asked peers in her small group if she could be a bit bossy as they worked to assemble a bridge out of LEGO bricks.
One of the camp’s organizers overheard the comment and made a point of addressing it during a break.
“Women often get accused of being bossy when they’re just being leaders,” said Jennifer Fyhrie, student recruitment coordinator and academic advisor in the CSU Department of Construction Management.
It was a recurring theme throughout the five-day Women in Construction Management Summer Institute: empowering young women to envision themselves doing anything they set their minds to — including working in the male-dominated construction industry.
With the aural backdrop of an Aretha Franklin music channel, the participants studied construction plans for their LEGO replica of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. They carefully counted the number of bricks they’d need for each pylon, for instance, and received a limited number of them in a cardboard box “barge.” Occasionally, when a team would get too far ahead of the others, Assistant Professor Anna Fontana would hand that team a pretend delay, like a worker strike or a new tariff on materials.
At one point, a team asked Fyhrie if they had completed their bridge. After a close look, Fyhrie said, “Oh, it’s so close!” The girls identified the final correction to make, then high-fived to celebrate being the first to finish.
During the week, the 27 participants, some of whom came from CSU’s Alliance Partnership high schools, learned about a variety of aspects of construction, from operating heavy machinery in an “equipment rodeo” to learning how to use computer-modeling technologies employed in the industry, including demonstrations of mixed and virtual reality. They toured job sites, heard presentations from women working in the field, and received a complimentary bag of tools provided by Milwaukee Tools and the Colorado Association of Mechanical and Plumbing Contractors.
For the second year in a row, a $20,000 donation from The Beavers Charitable Trust ensured that all of the girls could attend the institute for a mere $25 – no cost for Alliance students.
Other activities had the participants make boxes out of wood and industrial pipe as well as a working concrete lamp — which required them to strip electrical wire, attach a switch, mix and pour concrete, and attach a bulb with a base. There were sessions on estimating, scheduling, strength-finding and confidence. They heard from a variety of women — including graduate students, alumni and industry members — at a June 7 panel presentation and during sessions throughout the week.
On their final day, they worked at a Habitat for Humanity construction site and delivered final presentations, which kicked off with the song “Run the World (Girls)” by Beyoncé.
Brandee Morris, a current CSU student majoring in construction management who served as one of four CSU student mentors for the camp, said only a small percentage of those who major in construction management are female.
“I want to empower them to not be afraid to go into this field,” said Morris, who said she is studying CM because her grandfather was in the construction business and she’s always liked building things.
‘A good start’
Similarly, 10th-grade participant Trinity Kirschenman said she gained an interest in construction because her mother was in the industry. After hearing about Kirschenman’s interest, her Fort Lupton High School counselor suggested that she attend the CSU camp.
“I think it’s a good start to help us realize that women can impact the world,” she said.
For CSU student mentor Deni Masias, who is double-majoring in ethnic studies and sociology, it’s an opportunity to show the high school girls that “college is a possibility, even if you don’t have a lot of money.”