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Science & Tech

Science Club for Girls Takes STEM to the Next Generation

GWISE grad students share knowledge and enthusiasm

In a messy room at Allston’s West End House Boys and Girls Club, a dozen girls and women are gathered around a table, coloring and chatting.

This isn’t an arts and crafts session. It’s science, and it’s for girls only.

Welcome to Girls Science Club, a project of BU’s Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GWISE), where for an hour every Thursday evening a handful of grad students bring to life the building blocks behind their complicated PhD research projects and talk about their passions to elementary school girls. It’s a chance for the women to remember why they wanted to get into science in the first place, a time to step away from the lab and research and reconnect with their passions. For the girls, it’s a chance to learn from a real-life scientist—and have a little fun too.

“We all love science,” says earth and environment doctoral candidate Angela Rigden (GRS’19), one of the program coordinators. “We’re doing our PhDs and we’re obsessed with our field…so I think it’s the perfect way to give back as a woman who loves science—being able to plan an activity and share our crazy amount of enthusiasm about science with girls.”

The BU grad students, who in addition to Rigden include Sarabeth Buckley (GRS’19), Aurora Kesseli (GRS’21), Jessica Nadalin (GRS’22) and Radost Stanimirova (GRS’21),  have several aims: to mentor the girls, to get them excited about science, and possibly to slow the steep drop-off in interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields that often occurs among girls in middle school. And not the least of those aims: turning the idea of what a scientist looks like and acts like on its head.

“They’re always kind of surprised that you’re actually a scientist,” Rigden says. “Yes, that’s what we do, we tell them. That’s how we get paid.”

Armed with homemade kaleidoscopes, the women make their pitch in the bustling West End House hallway. The children, who can choose among several nightly activities, are studying a board listing their choices. The BU women are competing against guitar lab and a teen filmmakers class, step squad and a fantasy football group.

The girls peer into the toilet paper tube kaleidoscope and their jaws drop as Rigden spins the circle at the end. “Do you want to make one of your own?” she asks. Soon the room is filled with girls jumping around and hanging on the grad students.

To the girls, it might start as just an arts and crafts project, but to the BU women, the goal is to make them understand the science behind what they’re making. On a whiteboard are a series of questions: “Red light + blue light + green light = _____ ?” “Light travels in a _____ line.” “When light hits a mirror, the light ______.”

Rather than have the girls just answer the questions, the grad students let them work it out. The girls combine a blue and red and green flashlight to discover the white light that emerges. They bounce a laser light off several mirrors, giggling and gasping as they try to hold the tiny makeup compact mirrors steady enough to send the light shooting in different directions. Then it’s time to put that new knowledge to work.

The girls and their mentors decorate paper circles with bright colors and designs—the zigzags and hearts and stripes will make up the colors they see inside their kaleidoscope. They tape mirrored paper inside the toilet paper roll, stick the colored disc onto a straw, and look inside, turning the circle and looking amazed.

Angela Rigden and Cassandra Riley watching a video of the inside of the kaleidoscope Riley constructed for a Girls Science Club project.

Angela Rigden (GRS’19) and Cassandra Riley watching a video of the inside of the kaleidoscope Riley constructed for a Girls Science Club project.

Making science fun, making learning fun

More than 250 young people from 7 to 24 come to the West End House each day. The younger ones attend classes like Girls Science Club, while the young adults get college coaching and job search help. The end goal is to prepare all of them to go out into their communities to be successful and contribute. And the Girls Science Club fits perfectly into the West End House’s mission, says executive director Andrea Howard.

“We’ve learned that kids are far more engaged in learning when they’re excited about learning,” she says. With the Girls Science Club crew, “it’s nothing but excitement. They’re making science fun. They’re making learning fun.”

Many of the younger girls coming to the West End House are from schools with poor MCAS scores in science, and they benefit from the help. A program like Girls Science Club, though, would be nearly impossible for the West End House staff to bring off, Howard says.

“We just wouldn’t have been able to put in the time that’s needed in creating such an engaging program, because we have 300 kids we have to serve,” she says. “To have these committed volunteers who go above and beyond to make learning exciting and collaborative is a gift.”

The Girls Science Club began three years ago when a few women in GWISE approached the West End House with the idea of starting the club. It’s since become more structured, with four lead coordinators trading off directing the hour-long class, planning the week’s experiment, and checking out library books relevant to the science the girls will be learning.

Buckley, an earth and environment PhD candidate, was one of the early volunteers, coming most Thursday nights the first year. But she knew the club would benefit from more structure and engagement, and she pursued it like a scientist—coming up with a slew of activities, planning a rotation of volunteer leaders, and scheduling a monthly meeting to talk about various aspects of the club.

“It’s my favorite part of the week,” Buckley says. “It’s so rewarding to work with these girls and just watch them throughout the year.”

On this Thursday, eight-year-old Amaria Smith works next to Kesseli, an astronomy doctoral candidate, coloring multiple discs so she can see different shapes through her kaleidoscope. Amaria, a third grader at the Jackson/Mann K-8 School in Allston, has been coming to Girls Science Club for a couple of years. She’s one of the first to shout out the answers about how light bends and what happens when you shine it into a mirror.

Her favorite experiment was one that used Jell-O, she explains to a visitor. The girls built sturdy structures with toothpicks, then mimicked an earthquake. Amaria found out that triangles are the best shape.

“They go like this,” she says, pushing her marker-covered fingertips together in a triangle shape. “They stick together.”

The BU women see the progress the girls have made and how a few early troublemakers are now among the club leaders. But they know that there are real success stories they might never see.

“The day I’m waiting for is the day when those girls are in science class in middle school and something comes up that we talked about,” Buckley says. “And when the teacher asks about it, they know it and they’ll think, maybe I’m good at this. I won’t be there, but I’m so looking forward to when that happens for them.”

It’s possible, she continues, “that they’ll think, maybe I’ll be a scientist.”

To volunteer with the GWISE Girls Science Club, email GWISE officer Radost Stanimirova (GRS’21) at rkstan@bu.edu.

Allison Manning can be reached at almannin@bu.edu.

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