STEM career day at Penn State aims to cultivate the next crop of female scientists

bmilazzo@centredaily.comFebruary 1, 2014 

— With a toothbrush, battery and cellphone motor, Bellefonte eighth-graders Bella Toyos and Lindsay Knupp created and controlled an Ecological Robot.

The construction of an EcoBot was part of an experiment for the students to act as engineers to help prevent further contamination from spreading at a simulated beach spill.

Kirk Gilbert and Peggy Fisher from the College of Information Sciences and Technology led a classroom of middle school students in an experiment that taught them that science is more than just biology and chemistry.

On Saturday about 110 middle school girls from central Pennsylvania participated in the annual STEM Career Day for Middle School Girls hosted by the Eberly College of Science in partnership with Expanding Your Horizons Network.

Expanding Your Horizons is a national program that helps sponsor other entities that promote hands-on STEM activities — science, technology, engineering and math — for women

Mike Zeman, director of the Outreach and Science Engagement Office, said the program was designed to increase girls’ interest in mathematics, science, and engineering through hands-on activities, foster awareness of career opportunities in the scientific, math and technical fields, and provide girls with positive role models who are active in STEM studies and careers.

“The response is incredible,” Zeman said. “Some girls may at first think, ‘my parents wanted me to do this,’ but see that with all the activities and variety of content that it’s fun and can spark their interest in one of these fields.”

The mission this year was to take the girls on a series of workshops that highlighted topics on civil engineering, coral reefs, bioengineering, robotics and biology.

The day also included exhibits and a career expo. Keynote speaker Rachel Brennan, professor of environmental engineering at Penn State, urged the girls to think about their greater meaning in life and how they could have an impact on the world with the possibility of being a scientist.

“This isn’t something they’re learning every day in a classroom setting, so we’re able to show them something new in the sciences,” said Patti Kenney, program assistant with the Outreach and Science Engagement Office. “Research shows this is the age girls drop out of science, math and engineering, and we hope to continue that will to learn in these subjects by allowing them to interact with other female role models in the sciences.”

About 50 Penn State graduate students were able to share their passion with the next generation of scientists.

Brittany Banik is a second-year graduate student at Penn State in biomedical engineering and on Saturday, she was one grad student who was able to act as a curriculum mentor with the students in hopes to provide STEM outreach.

“We focus on females because women are not populated in these professions,” Banik said. “We’re facilitating the sciences and expressing excitement.”

For Bella, 13, and classmate Lindsay, 14, both of their favorite activities were making a small organs out of hydrogel.

Lindsay said she isn’t sure yet what she wants to be when she’s an adult, but Bella said she is certain she’ll do something in the science field.

“It’s just really interesting to me and I think science does a lot to change the world,” Bella said.

Kenney said she expects the STEM Career Day for Middle School Girls to continue far into the future.

“We think instilling this awareness has a positive impact now and will have a positive impact on the girls down the road,” Kenney said.

Britney Milazzo can be reached at 231-4648. Follow her on Twitter @ M11azzo.

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