Camp hopes to fuel science, math interest in STEM2 Girls

Mattie Ocker of E.B. Aycock Middle School was one of 85 girls invited to ECU on April 1 for a special one-day camp focusing on science and math.

GREENVILLE   —   More than 85 Pitt County middle school students were exposed to the fun side of science, technology, engineering, math and medicine on April 1. Making this day camp a little different: The participants were all girls.

The first STEM2 Girls Conference brought eighth-grade girls from 11 Pitt County schools to East Carolina University’s campus to encourage the girls to pursue advanced math and science courses during high school.

“Research has shown that up to sixth grade girls want to go into science and math, but then it plateaus in the seventh and eighth grade,” said Margaret Wirth, director of the Center for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education.  “We’re trying to stop that curve.”

Wirth and others on the steering committee rounded up funding from the College of Education, College of Technology and Computer Science and the Thomas Harriot College of Arts & Sciences to pay the approximate $2,800 cost of the one-day program. The ECU Office of Equity, Diversity and Community Relations and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund also supported the event.

Others on the Steering Committee are Evelyn Brown, engineering, College of Technology and Computer Science; Mary Farwell, biology; College of Arts & Sciences; Susan Ganter, mathematics education, College of Education; Leslie Pagliari, technology systems, College of Technology and Computer Science; and Cindy Putnam-Evans, biology, College of Arts & Sciences.

After arriving on campus and hearing a pep talk about career options, the girls went to lab stations that focused on the five areas emphasized in the camp – science, technology, engineering, math and medicine. At the math station, girls played Nim, a math game of strategy, and solved logic games. And at the medicine station, they touched human aorta and heart tissue.

Touching a heart made an impression on Katlyn Winfield of Grifton School, who listed it as one of her favorite activities of the day.

“I also really liked when we smashed cans at the engineering station. I want to go into engineering or chemistry so I liked those,” she said. At the engineering lab, the girls learned about different material properties and how those properties play a role in design, such as in a car body.

Mikayla Meeks of Bethel School said being able to see and touch an actual heart was her favorite activity of the day. Mikayla, who has been accepted into the Pitt County Schools Health Sciences Academy, said she wants to go into the medical field, either as a pediatric nurse or “be the person who goes with children into surgery to be their buddy.”

The tour of the ECU campus was impressive to Mattie Ocker of E.B. Aycock Middle. “It was exciting to see the buildings and everybody talking and walking around,” she said. “I really liked the engineering (station). We crushed a can and saw physics in action.”

The girls’ school counselors who accompanied them said they were impressed with something they observed during the day.

“We noticed during different sessions how much more engaged they were, to volunteer and take part. Of course, the subject matter was one they were really interested in. It was good for them to see the different possibilities and career options. And it was non-threatening because it was all girls,” said Lee Kearn, instructional coach at Wellcome Middle School.

Fellow chaperone Jane Shrader, a counselor at Pactolus School, added, “It’s been fabulous. The girls are relaxed and focused, no competition.”

After lunch at Todd Dining Hall, the girls gathered for a closing ceremony, which included putting their hands to work along with their brains with origami. Led by Ellen Hilgoe, associate director of N.C. Early Math Placement Testing Program, a state agency housed at ECU, the girls made origami boxes, which they filled with Smarties candy.

Hilgoe, a former high school math teacher, sneaked a little geometry into her directions for each step in the process: What do you know about a square? What kind of angle is this? Fold on the diagonal and now notice we now have four triangles in this square. What are they called?

She also encouraged the girls to challenge themselves in high school when choosing their math courses.

That message was repeated by Wirth as she dismissed the girls. “When you’re in high school, take the highest math and science class every year. Don’t be afraid of a challenge.”

This year the STEM2 Girls Conference was one day, but the steering committee plans to hold a summer camp in 2012 bringing girls to campus for a week. The group has received a Mathematics Association of America $6,000 Tensor grant to fund that project.

Ellen Hilgoe of the N.C. Early Math Placement Testing Program led the girls in making origami boxes.