Before Illexus Martin, 14, decided to go to the Laura Jeffrey Academy, she knew little about engineering.

On Wednesday, Illexus and 34 other girls became the first eighth-grade graduates of the state's first all-girl public school.

"This school really built up my interest in science and helped me be a better scholar," said Illexus, who now wants to be a chemical engineer.

The charter school, which teaches fifth through eighth grades, attempts to build the confidence of girls and push their interests in science, technology, engineering, arts and math through a year-round project-based model.

In Minnesota, only 25 percent of the engineering workforce is women. Research indicates that's partly because girls tend to lose confidence and interest in technical fields by age 9, according to Cindy Reuther, founder and executive director of the school.

"Girls have the brains for these fields but they're not encouraged to go into them," she said.

Laura Jeffrey, the school's namesake, died in 2003. She was one of the first African-American female students at Macalester College. She graduated with honors and became one of the first African-American librarians in the St. Paul library system.

Since it opened in 2008, the St. Paul charter school has doubled in size from its original enrollment of 100 students.

The academy started with fifth-graders and added on a grade each year.

Wednesday afternoon at the Weyerhauser Chapel on Macalester's campus, dozens of girls clad in high heels, makeup and glittery dresses, giggled and cried while reminiscing about their time at the school. They built robots, magnetic cars and took field trips to farms.

They also agreed that boys can be a distraction.

"An all-girls school? OMG! Drama!" 14-year-old Tusmo Ali told her classmates. "But this school made me the confident, scholarly young woman I am. Oh, and I forgot, good looking."

In the coming years, Reuther said she wants to intensify the school's focus on the technical fields, entering state and national science and robotic competitions.

"We want to provide an education for these young women that will make them louder and prouder than they were when they were in fifth grade," she said.

Daarel Burnette II• 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib