Sometimes all it takes for a girl to get interested in science is experiencing it hands-on — like documenting the health of a pond ecosystem by tracking animals, or understanding the physics of static electricity by feeling her hair stand up on end. Seeing the science in action, along with hearing encouragement to learn more about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields, can push more girls to consider a career in these disciplines.
The Girl Scouts of Suffolk County (GSSC) organization recognizes the importance of STEM-focused activities, and through its partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory, has participated in an increasing number of programs every year. Since 2011, Girl Scout troops have come to the Lab to learn about topics such as environmental sciences, nanotechnology, and solar energy, and educators from Brookhaven and the Long Island Matrix for Science and Technology (LIMSAT) have travelled to GSSC summer camps to facilitate STEM programs. This summer, GSSC staff came to the Lab to learn how to administer STEM workshops to the scouts themselves, thereby increasing the number of girls the Brookhaven-developed programs can reach.
LIMSAT Assistant Director Kira Schultheiss, a PhD researcher herself, said programs like these reach girls at a “critical age” before some develop the impression that science doesn’t have practical applications, or that it isn’t for them.
“A major goal of the programs is not just to teach science, but to show how you can apply it,” Schultheiss said. “There are a million different roles you can have as an engineer, for example, so understanding how you can bring the applications to a career in this kind of growing field is really important. Even if these girls don’t want to be doctors or research scientists, we want them to be aware of the other options available.”
At the environmental sciences workshop, GSSC staff participants filled mesh bags with leaves and other forest debris, and then tossed them into a pond onsite at Brookhaven. They left the “leaf packs” in the water for three weeks, allowing a plethora of creatures — including aquatic worms, snails, and dragonfly nymphs — to use the mesh islands as a habitat. When they pulled the mini-ecosystems out of the pond, the participants were able to observe first-hand the vast diversity of life that calls the small pond home. It’s these types of hands-on activities that show how science is all around us, Pulecio said, and how much fun it can be to find it.
“Seeing somebody who maybe wasn’t excited about science or who was intimidated by science just have fun with it, and enjoy getting dirty even if they didn’t want to get dirty, is a great reward to see,” Pulecio said.
When GSSC staff members left each workshop, they departed with educational materials supplied by Brookhaven educators so they could administer the STEM programs with their own Girl Scouts. Each curriculum “menu” included ways to alter the activities based on age group, the amount of time available, and the number of girls participating. This approach makes it as easy as possible for the GSSC staff to pass on the science they learned at Brookhaven to the girls, Pulecio said.
The Girl Scout leaders have already started planning what Lab programming they want to participate in next year, which may include topics like physics and nanotechnology.
“We are delighted to partner with Brookhaven National Laboratory in bringing STEM programs to girls, as it affords girls a hands-on approach to exploring the many opportunities that exist in STEM-related fields,” said GSSC President and CEO Yvonne Grant. “Brookhaven National Laboratory has done a fantastic job of training our staff so that we can offer the best STEM experience possible to our membership.”
This story originally ran on Brookhaven’s website on Aug. 7, 2014.