Discovery Space

Fifth-grade girls at Bellefonte recent took a trip to Spring Creek to learn about water quality. While there, the girls conducted tests to examine the health of the creek.

STEM program continues to empower fifth graders



BELLEFONTE – For the past five years, local fifth-grade girls have been given the opportunity to explore their interests in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), an opportunity that may not exist if not for the dedication of staff at Discovery Space.

In 2015, Discovery Space introduced its stEMPOWERed Girls program at the Bellefonte Area Elementary School. Since then, the program has been expanded to include Benner Elementary. The program aims to encourage fifth-grade girls to continue exploring STEM subjects as they move into middle school, as well as increase awareness of the STEM career opportunities available.

Through the program, students had the opportunity to visit Minitab Inc., a software development company based in State College.

“We believe it is important for young girls to have access to STEM programs like stEMPOWERed Girls because it provides them with opportunities to explore different careers they might be interested in, in the future,” said Olivia Perdew, education manager at Discovery Space.

Over the past year, sessions have focused on aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, food science and computer coding, according to Michele Crowl, executive director at Discovery Space. Discovery Space was able to partner with faculty and graduate students in aerospace engineering to give program participants the opportunity to use a flight simulator and experience a room that was used to test ways to prevent helicopter blades from getting covered with ice. With the help of graduate students in mechanical engineering, participants were able to learn about a research project that involves building wheelchairs for individuals with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

In early May, participants went on trips to Minitab Inc., a local software development company, and to Spring Creek to learn about water quality and conduct tests to examine the health of the creek. Participants in the program are more likely to seek careers in STEM after seeing other females working in the field, Perdew said. “Through this program, these girls are able to see firsthand how science, technology, engineering, and math are out into practice daily for professionals, and we hope that seeing these subjects in context might also motivate them to continue investing their time in exploring them further.”

Each year, Perdew said the numbers at both elementary schools increase each year, especially as the participants tell their friends and siblings about it. To keep in touch with former participants, Discovery Space holds yearly alumni reunion events.

“Our participants enjoy getting to know each other and the fifth graders have told us that they are glad to have had the opportunity to meet some of the sixth and seventh graders they will see again in the fall,” Perdew said. “We hope to continue growing the program so that we can include additional elementary schools and continue to engage our cohort as they proceed through middle school.”

The stEMPOWERed program receives funding from AAUW State College, the VWR Foundation and Paula Bell, a former Lock Haven University professor. Over the past year, the funding has allowed the program to run four sessions at each elementary school and two reunion events.

“Additional funding would enable us to begin reaching other elementary schools in our area and run more reunion events for alumni of the program,” Perdew said.

In the future, Perdew is hoping that the program can be expanded. She said they will continue to find ways to engage participants as they get older.

“We are encouraged by the ownership many of our current participants and alumni have for this program and hope to continue this momentum in creating a lasting sense of community.”

Discovery Space, located at 1224 N. Atherton St. in State College, has 5,000 square feet of interactive exhibit space and hosts various birthday parties, field trips, summer camps, and events for children 14 years and younger. More information about the science center can be found online at MyDiscoverySpace.org or by contacting the center at 814-234-0200 or frontdesk@mydiscoveryspace.org.