STEAM powered: Girls spend week at science camp

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Kristin Schultz

Daily Gazette

The theme for this year’s Engineering Institute for Young Women was “the sun,” a fitting theme, as the program aims to keep girls’ interest in math and science shining bright.

Throughout the week, 40 middle school girls spent time learning and participating in projects that required sunlight. They made solar-powered cars and raced them. They made solar-powered ovens and used them to make s’mores. The students studied exoplanets and observed sunspots. They screen printed T-shirts using UV light.

“My mom signed me up and didn’t even ask me,” said one participant. “I was so mad and thought this would be so boring, but it’s really fun.”

Most of the other 7th graders at her table agreed; as first-time participants, they were surprised by the fun of it all.

“The teachers are fun,” said Olivia Guzzo.

“The hands-on learning is really fun,” said Sara Mongelli.

“The teachers are knowledgeable and helpful when we have questions,” said Mia Frisoni. “But they don’t just do it for us; they let us figure it out.”

Of the 40 girls, 15 were repeat attendees.

The program began when school officials noticed a decline in female students’ interest in pursuing math and science classes as they registered for high school.

“Studies show that girls become disinterested in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) subjects around this age,” said Niskayuna High School science teacher and program coordinator Paul Scott. “We want to prevent that from happening.”

The program aims to keep girls engaged in STEAM subjects by offering the hands-on approach, pointing out how scientific breakthroughs affect real people. For example, solar-powered technology like water purification and irrigation systems, as well as lights, are increasingly being used in developing nations.

Scott said the girls-only format allows participants to quickly develop confidence and a degree of comfort. He also said they tend to share the workload and make decisions democratically.

On Friday, the group visited the GE Global Research Center where they took in demonstrations and participated in a question-and-answer session with five of GE’s female scientists and engineers.

The five-hour field trip began with comments from GE Technical Operations Leader Kristen Brosnan.

“Women in science and tech are rock stars,” Brosnan told the girls.

She also spoke about GE’s global initiative, which aims to employ 20,000 women in technical jobs by 2020.

The girls took in seven demonstrations on Friday.

In the metal forging building, Steve Buresh and Scott Oppenheimer talked about creating metal alloys for GE researchers. They then put a red-hot cylinder of metal alloy into a hydraulic press that slowly smashed the metal into a disc only a couple of inches thick.

The girls got in on the action in the microbot demonstration, where they set up mazes and obstacle courses and attempted to maneuver a tiny robot through the courses.

In the MRI demonstration, the girls learned about magnetic fields and the MRI’s role in diagnostic medicine. They also saw the MRI imaging of a pineapple.

Baxter the robot picked up blocks and moved them around, and an ultrasound machine captured live images of a carotid artery.

The demonstrations heated up as Olivia Bugbee explained the glass blowing shop, as she melted, blew, cut and shaped different kinds of glass. The glass blowing operation creates custom tubes, beakers and other equipment for GE researchers.

Rayna Parzych liked the MRI demonstration best.

“I want to go into the medical field,” she said.

After lunch, a panel of five female engineers and scientists took questions from the girls.

“I like to see kids get excited about technology and science,” said mechanical engineer Molly Stieber.

“I didn’t have opportunities like this as a kid,” added panelist Nikole Kucza.

The girls asked questions for an hour, inquiring about everything from what the GE employees like about their jobs to the worst lab disaster to how they first became interested in a scientific field.

“There is still magic in science,” said Margeaux Wallace, a materials scientist. “You’re constantly seeing things you can’t explain.”

Each panelist spoke about her journey into the field, crediting teachers, fathers and others for encouraging them to pursue their chosen fields.

Each panelist also encouraged the students to persevere through difficulty, cultivate relationships, build support systems and learn from failure.

Participants paid $250 for the week-long camp. GE provides financial support for supplies and opens its doors for the Friday finale.