Triton Prof’s Film on Girls in STEM Makes TV Premiere

Wednesday, October 25, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

Featured image: Risé Sanders Weir, whose film recently premiered on WTTW. | Photos submitted 

When Oak Park filmmaker Risé Sanders Weir started working on a documentary exploring some of the social obstacles keeping young women from going into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields at a similar rate to men, it was 2012 — a different world in terms of gender politics.

Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly, for instance, still roamed the earth as giants, uninjured and unbowed.

Weir’s film, called Gadget Girls: STEM Futures, premiered on WTTW last Sunday in a country where Donald Trump is president. So, naturally, Weir is sensing some urgency to get the documentary seen, particularly while issues of gender inequity and women’s rights are at the center of the national conversation.

“In one sense, in a sad way, things are much more out in the open right now,” Weir said in a phone interview on Monday. “I think in a bigger sense, as former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill would say, all politics is local. We have to start at the bottom to change things.”

The year before she started working on the film, Weir had read a New York Times article profiling the technology summer camp at Triton, called “GADgET” (Girls Adventuring in Design, Engineering and Technology), which introduced middle school girls to the male-dominated fields of manufacturing and engineering.

The one-week camp is designed to equip girls with tools — from drills to soldering guns — that they learn through direct usage, trial and error. The point is to instill them with the confidence they need to excel comfortably in STEM subjects in the classroom.

Sarah drill

A young girl featured in Weir’s film, Gadget Girls: STEM Futures. | Photo submitted 

Weir’s film documents the girls at a GADgET camp in 2012, following them as they learn the skills necessary to design their own gadget by week’s end.

According to its website, the goal of the film is to “shed light on the social pressures that are holding girls back from STEM careers. This film will inspire girls to stay the course, keep learning and practicing, and arm them with real-world knowledge about how to succeed in what still is a man’s world.”

Weir, who has been an adjunct faculty member at Triton for five years, plans on launching an outreach campaign in the coming months to have her film not just seen but digested by girls and boys in Oak Park and River Forest schools (her daughter attends Brooks). She’s also interested in showing the film on PBS stations in Michigan and Ohio.

“The hope is to get it out there for middle school girls to see it,” Weir said, since the film explores what might be called the confidence gap between girls and boys studying or pursuing science, math and technology fields.

Weir said that while she didn’t ever feel shut down as a film student at Columbia College, she did experience some of the pressure that befalls women in male-dominated industries.

“There were times when I’d be the only woman or one of only two women in a class,” she recalled. “I remember a directing class I had. If the guys wanted a female character in their scene, I had to play the character in every scene because there were so few women in our class. I didn’t feel like the guys didn’t want me there or anything. It was pretty positive, but there are still obstacles even for women who may not be experiencing outright discrimination.”

Weir said that, by screening her film far and wide, particularly to young girls who may be outnumbered in STEM classrooms, she hopes to send a singular message: You’re not alone.

“Sometimes, as individuals, we feel like we’re not empowered to speak or put our ideas out there without feeling like we’re viewed in a certain way,” Weir said.

“I want young girls who start feeling the social pressures that may lead to them thinking they’re not smart or aren’t interested in hard sciences,” she said. “I want them to know that they’re not the only person who felt this way. It’s a universal experience. That way, they can recognize that this is a thing they need to deal with.” VFP 

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