Middletown Students Get Taste of STEM at Wesleyan

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Making “gak” at Green Street

Oneiry, in sixth grade and 11 years old, liked the tie-dye experiment, where learning about the light and color also resulted in cool take-home T-shirts. Genesis, a nine-year-old fourth grader, really enjoyed the liquid nitrogen demonstration, especially the ice cream she got to make with it. And Julia, at 10 in fifth grade, had a good time making “gak,” a substance that’s not quite solid and not quite liquid – and slimy and fun.

They were among 10 Middletown girls between fourth and sixth grade who participated in a girls’ science camp sponsored by the Green Street Arts Center Aug. 4-8. The session, staffed by Wesleyan faculty, was designed to introduce girls to the “STEM” fields – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Women are underrepresented in these fields, and educators believe it’s important to engage girls in them as early as possible.

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Hands-on science

“There are significantly fewer women and people of color in STEM careers, and we wanted to create an opportunity to inspire young women to think about science as an option for themselves,” said Green Street Director Sara MacSorley. “I think getting girls excited about science is easy because science is inherently cool; the tougher part can be showing young people that science is a viable career for women.”

The week’s packed schedule included: a fruit fly experiment with Assistant Professor of Biology Ruth Johnson; a laser and prism demo by Assistant Professor of Physics Christina Othon; and a “Grow Your Own Germs” bacteria class guided by Erika Taylor, assistant professor of chemistry, assistant professor of environmental studies. The teachers matched hands-on activities with explanations of basic scientific concepts, and the students practiced scientific methods as they kept lab notebooks, making observations and drawing conclusions from their experiments. Guest speakers included a female engineer who talked about her job.

On Aug. 7, the girls spent the day at the Exley Science Center, touring the university labs and later studying the eyes of flies to better understand how humans perceive light. They were able to look at specimens under high-powered microscopes – the same ones used by Wesleyan’s biology students.

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Building bugs

“I really value being able to work with girls of this age group, because it is the time when kids start to envision their futures,” said Taylor. “And I think it is so important for these girls to see role models they can identify with, so that they know anyone can do science.”

Johnson, who wowed the campers with the fly-eye demonstration, said: “These 10 young ladies approached the challenges we gave them with a boldness and excitement that was inspiring. This is the type of boldness that young people have before any seeds of self-doubt have begun to germinate. You know, that can-I-really-do-this? doubt.”

And Othon was impressed with the way the campers embraced the scientific method. “They took ownership of their notebooks, and made marvelous observations and detailed descriptions of their work.”

The science camp was supported with a generous grant from the Petit Family Foundation.