Young girls empowered by STEM program

Through stEMPOWERed, students got hands-on experience with STEM-related activities, such as plant dissection.

BELLEFONTE — Fifth-grade girls at Bellefonte Elementary have a new motivation to increase their science learning and get involved in STEM-related career fields in the future.

In its second year, an afterschool program called “stEMPOWERed Girls” is that motivator. The program, which is offered by Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania, is free and open to any interested fifth-grade girl who likes science and wants to learn more about the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. The first session of the program this school year will be held Nov. 16 through Nov. 18, according to Bellefonte Elementary Principal Karen Krisch.

” Most [STEM] programs for girls are like one day after school or maybe one week of summer camp,” said Michele Crowl, director of education at Discovery Space. “So we tried to dream up how we might have a longer engagement with the girls and get them to see a number of careers that they might consider, people that are doing that work in their own communities.”

Crowl, who dreamt up the program, said Discovery Space has been working with the American Association of University Women (AAUW) to get girls in the local community involved in STEM. AAUW has a STEM committee to support programs such as this for Discovery Space, a committee which is committed to helping grow awareness, especially among girls, of opportunities in STEM fields.

Discovery Space’s program spans three days per each session, explained Olivia Perdew, the education manager at Discovery Space who runs the program’s sessions. The first day is to give an introduction of the STEM topic through hands-on activities and experiments, the second is to provide a field trip to visit a female expert in that field, and the third is used for reflection and a wrap-up activity.

“One of the things we know as educators, as it’s been shown, is that when you introduce a whole bunch of new content to kids it can sometimes be so overwhelming that they don’t absorb much at all,” Perdew said.

A partner that Discovery Space will be working with for its second program year will be Garden Genetics, which is a plant breeding company located in Bellefonte.

On the first day of the session, Perdew will introduce Bellefonte students to parts of the plant, and students will get the opportunity to do a simple plant dissection. The first day of the session will serve as a base for the knowledge the girls will need to do know for their visit to Garden Genetics the following day, Perdew explained.

During a first day session of the program last school year, biology was the focus and students had plated specimens to look at under a microscope.

“For many of our girls, this was the first time they were using a microscope, so it also invites this opportunity for them to begin using tools that they will use in middle school and high school,” Perdew said.

On the second day, the girls who are participating in the program will receive a behind-the-scenes tour of Garden Genetics, where they will get to meet and talk with two female experts in the field. Perdew said that the girls will talk to Irene Palmer, a plant breeder, and Andrea Murphy-Faust, a tissue culture specialist.

“They aren’t aware that this is a part of their community, so it also increases their own appreciation for the people that are around them and also the businesses that are local,” Perdew said.

In the previous program year, students were given the opportunities to meet an architect at Weber Murphy Fox, Inc., which was part of a session that focused heavily on engineering. Perdew said that students have also gotten to meet naturalists at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, where the focus was environmental science and topics such as water health and species identification were discusses. Girls in the program have also visited a molecular biology lab on Penn State’s campus, where they got to talk about DNA and cells.

Crowl said, “They did a lot of biology that they normally wouldn’t get until middle school, so exposing them to it now hopefully makes it a little more interesting to them when they see it again.”

There are quite a few other benefits for students who get involved with the program.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to get to know each other better, while pursuing new topics,” Perdew said. “I think, for many of them, it’s the first time that they’ve really understood maybe how things like math and science could play a role in their futures.”

One student who said she was not performing well in math in school was able to do math perfectly well when she used math to do a scale drawing during the architecture/engineering session. Perdew said that she sees some students who get hung up on their test grades, and for them, this is a great opportunity to learn and succeed in a very different environment. She has also seen the power of programs such as this, where students gain the motivation to continue working harder in school.

Many students who choose to participate in the program’s sessions are happy with the opportunities the program offers them.

One student, Kimmy Edwards said, “I like science and I thought this would be a cool opportunity to learn more about science.”

According to Perdew, some students like Edwards who already liked science were excited to explore the topic further, while others said they really appreciated the opportunity to hang with their friends in a safe environment after school and wound up finding the science component to be pretty cool as well.

This year, Discovery Space has two sessions set up with Bellefonte Elementary and will most likely do another four or five sessions in the spring, Crowl said. They are planning to engage with Benner Elementary this school year as well.

“We’re looking for additional funding to grow this program across more schools, so we can be in every school three or four sessions a year,” Crowl added.

In the future, Crowl and Perdew said they are interested in creating opportunities with students at the high school level. Currently, Discovery Space has partnered with some teachers at Bellefonte Area Middle School for a program called GaLS, or Girls Love Science, which is also funded by the AAUW.

“We do know that research shows that it’s important to have long-term contact in order to actually succeed in getting females into the STEM workforce,” Perdew said.