UNH students teach local girls about science, engineering
Published: Friday, November 2, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02
The University of New Hampshire’s Society of Women Engineers (SWE) visited Dover Middle School last Tuesday, Oct. 23 as part of a new outreach program. Members of the organization mentored 21 middle-school girls, engaging them in hands-on activities to help them with advanced math and sciences.
SWE is a not-for-profit organization that supports female engineering students on campus. Founded in 1950, SWE is known for its social, educational and outreach programs. The organization is predominantly community service-based.
“It’s nice to be in a group where there are more women,” May Win Thein, SWE faculty advisor said. “Especially since this campus is predominantly women.”
SWE Secretary and UNH senior Victoria Ward initiated a project at Dover Middle School that began this year. The after-school program is called Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) For Girls.
“I started the program because I was touched by all of the information the CEPS advisory board sent SWE on the importance of encouraging more girls to go into STEM fields,” Ward said.
The program was originally designed to accommodate 14 students, but was expanded to 21 due to increased interest.
“I just had more kids that wanted to sign up and do it,” said DMS guidance counselor Fran Meffen. “I have a feeling now that after six weeks of the program, word will be out and kids will be saying, ‘I’ve had such a good time, you gotta do this.’”
Members of SWE will visit Dover Middle School every Tuesday for six weeks. Ward runs each session with the help of two SWE volunteers. Each session lasts approximately one hour and 15 minutes.
“The after-school programs are hands-on activities,” Ward said. “We’ve had them [the middle school students] build waste water treatment plants using soda bottles, gravels and sand. We run the program to get girls introduced to thinking like engineers.”
Students in the program buried themselves in hands-on projects on the afternoon of Oct. 23. They worked at three different stations, building rubber-band cars and electrical highways, and dissecting mechanical objects.
Sixth-grader Lily Dane immersed herself at station No. 1, trying to reassemble a remote-controlled car.
“One time my dad took a hunting gun, took it apart and then put it back together again,” Dane said as she carefully examined which wires to reconnect. “I just think it’s cool. It’s cool to do this and make stuff. I like taking stuff apart and making things work.”
Dane is one of five sixth-graders in the program. There are 14 fifth-graders, one seventh-grader and one eighth-grader. Meffen explained that interest is generated among the younger students because they are less impacted by gender roles and stigmas, according to research.
“Research shows that fifth and sixth grade are the pivotal grades for deciding on career paths,” Meffen said. “Something that you’re really passionate about seems to keep going from sixth grade on.”
SAT scores now show that female students are closing the gap on math scores, but even with 60 percent of college students now women, most of them tend to go into the liberal arts programs as opposed to the STEM areas.
“Middle school is a critical age as far as girls getting it into their heads that math and engineering are for boys and that young girls don’t go into those fields,” Thein said. “And so we’re trying to change that by running these programs at that age group.”
Fifth-grade student Mia Whitehead said that most of her friends interested in science were girls, and that after having such good experiences and making new friends in STEM For Girls, she will continue participating in the program for each six-week session.
“I like how we get to take things apart, like we’re doing today,” Whitehead said. “I like doing experiments and making hypotheses. I like the mechanical dissection. I learned a lot when we took apart a screwdriver.”
Whitehead and her peers worked with Ward at the Electrical Highway station, learning to create electrical currents.
“I hope that these girls build confidence from performing the experiments,” Ward said. “And that they realize that anyone can go into these fields, and most importantly, develop a curiosity for at least one scientific discipline.”
The objective of STEM For Girls is for students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom into real life experiments.
“It’s fabulous,” Meffen said. “I think they really see the relevance and that’s the most important thing.”
SWE raises money for its outreach projects by doing fundraising and cold-calling. The organization establishes funding by selling grilled cheese and T-shirts on campus and through networking with local companies. It also receives a great deal of support from UNH.