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No cookies but lots of science at Girl Scout STEM Fair at PPPL

The Girl Scouts may be famous for selling cookies but today’s Scouts are focusing more on encouraging girls in science and technology than on cookie sales. Some 240 Scouts got plenty of hands-on activities and encouragement through a Girl Scout STEM Fair held at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

Girl Scouts in grades three to twelve from throughout New Jersey spent the day on hands-on science activities with scientists and engineers from PPPL and elsewhere in New Jersey. They worked with scientists and engineers from PPPL and elsewhere in New Jersey to build robots and solar cars, do chemistry experiments, work with electric circuits and fing out what it’s like to be an inventor. More than 50 PPPL staff members, 23 Girl Scout leaders and 10 others volunteered for the May 17 event.  

Sparking the interest of Girl Scouts in the STEM fields

The STEM Fair was aimed at sparking the interest of Girl Scouts in the STEM fields. Studies show that many girls lose interest in math and science in middle school.  Only 20 percent of female freshman say they intend to major in a STEM field. A 2012 report by the Girl Scouts entitled “Generation STEM: What Girls Say About Science, Technology, Engineering and Math found that girls who are exposed to STEM fields are more likely to be interested in going into those fields.

“For some of these girls this may be the first time they ever did anything like this,” said Cheryl Rowe-Rendleman, a Girl Scout leader and a consultant for pharmaceutical companies in ophthalmology products, who helped organize the Girl Scout STEM fair at PPPL. She added that it’s important for the Girl Scouts to encourage girls in STEM fields. “In addition to all the character building we do, there’s also a need for things that will be useful for them as they move into their careers,” she said.

The younger Brownies and Juniors from third to fifth grade took part in group activities. They joined in hands-on plasma demonstrations and learned that plasma, a hot electrically charged gas, is the fourth state of matter. They steered robots, learned how to put out real fires, and watched a cryogenics demonstration.

The Cadettes, Seniors and Ambassadors from grades six through twelve chose to take two workshops from a dozen topics ranging from electronics to energy and inventing.  They also got to take part in fire safety and robotics demonstrations.  There was a mini college fair during lunch and the day ended with a “Her Story in STEM Panel,” made up of young women in the STEM fields. 

Getting girls into male-dominated fields

Theresa Gillars, a senior staff accountant at PPPL and a long-time Girl Scout leader, who was one of the main organizers of the event, said encouraging girls to enter STEM fields is vital. “We are trying to encourage girls to go into STEM fields because they have been male-dominated fields,” she said. “We're trying to introduce the girls to STEM at an early age.”

Adam Cohen, PPPL’s Deputy Director for Operations, said the Girl Scout STEM Fair is exactly the kind of event PPPL should sponsor. “Here’s an opportunity to open our doors and have people see science and see researchers and see their excitement through their eyes and I think that’s a fabulous opportunity!” he said. “To me, it’s all about ‘Can we level the playing field?’ Can we just say, ‘Here are the opportunities, here are the skills you need to really go into these fields.”

Some girls at the STEM Fair appeared to be getting the message. Khushi Varshney 12, of Princeton Junction, N.J., said she enjoyed her engineering workshop taught by PPPL engineers Mike Mardenfeld and Kelsey Tresemer, in which they built “a really tall tower with a limited amount of supplies.”

“I like science a lot,” she said. But not all girls her age feel the same way, she said. “Many girls don’t like science but once they learn about it, they find it’s very interesting,” she said.

Mackenzie Martinovitch, 13, of Winslow, N.J., said most of the girls she knows aren’t interested in science. “Most girls want to be actresses or singers or go into media,” she said. 

A pervasive attitude that girls aren’t good at STEM

There is still a pervasive attitude that girls aren’t good at STEM, Rowe-Rendleman said. She recalled that when her daughter, Hunter, a student at West Windsor High School-North, attended a special math camp for high school students, she found that she was one of two girls among numerous boys. The boys told the two girls, “You don’t belong here.”  But the girls talked to the teacher and they ended up getting additional encouragement. Now her daughter is taking advanced calculus but without her parent’s support the incident could have discouraged her for life. “When things like that happen, that throws girls off track,” she said.

The report noted that girls tend to start losing interest in math and science in middle school. Only 20 percent of female college freshmen say they intend to major in a STEM field and only 32 percent of teen girls ages 12 to 17 think computing would be a good college major compared to 74 percent of boys the same age. And while there are stereotypes that girls are not as strong performers in math and science, high school girls actually perform equally well in math and science, according to the American Association of University Women. Girls generally take more credits and have a better grade point average than boys but boys tend to do better on standardized tests.

Preparing girls for the job market

In today’s job market, even girls who don’t enter a specific STEM field will need strong skills in computing and mathematics, Rowe-Rendleman said. “We’re finding that quantitative skills are really employable,” she said. “The whole idea is to develop skills for this century.”

“In addition to all the character building we do there’s also a need for things that will be useful to girls as they move into their careers,” Rowe-Rendleman said. “This program is going to help them get the preparation – through courses and mentors – that will help them become the type of people they want to be.”

The Scouts got plenty of encouragement from a panel of young women in science entitled “Her Story in STEM,” who urged the Scouts to pursue their passion for science. “My suggestion to you is to really think about what you enjoy, not what other people think you should be doing,” said Claire E. White, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

Urging girls to find their passion

“We all have our passions,” said Kristina Tatum, a researcher at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. “It’s holding true to yourself and your interests and knowing someday you will be doing something that’s your passion.”

The panel discussed the importance of finding mentors and advisors who can help young women in their careers. They also told girls that they can try various paths in different fields and would likely have several different types of jobs in the STEM field.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Laura Stiltiz, director of research programs and advising for underserved women in STEM at the Douglas Program for Rutgers Women in STEM. “And don’t be afraid of what other people think. It took me a long time to go after what I really like.”





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