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Summer camps give girls opportunities for hands-on science
Savannah Ness, Rebecca Bondeson, and Darian Givens experiement with a small motor and pulley system during G'erals Garage at the Girls in Mathematics, engineering, and Science (GEMS) summer program at Augsburg Center
Savannah Ness, Rebecca Bondeson, and Darian Givens experiement with a small motor and pulley system during G'erals Garage at the Girls in Mathematics, engineering, and Science (GEMS) summer program at Augsburg Center
Scientific attitudes
* Desiring knowledge

* Respecting reason

* Relying on data

* Being skeptical

* Accepting ambiguity

* Keeping a positive attitude toward failure

Jenn Day
Freelance Writer

In an astronomy class at the College of St. Catherine, Polly Williamson leads the girls, ages 6 to 9, through a study of comets and the light emitted by stars. The girls attend Curie Camp, a girls-only science program offered at St. Kate’s through the Science Museum of Minnesota. On this day, Williamson’s explaining how a magnifying glass makes a ray of light focus. She’s already taught the girls how to use a spectroscope and understand the light emitted by stars.

Williamson, who teaches six different grades of science at Farnsworth Elementary in St. Paul, has a playful way, but the girls get the message. When they call an object a thingamajiggy, she asks if the thingamajiggy has a name.

“There’s no giggling in class. There’s no laughing in class,” intones Williamson, mock serious. “Science isn’t supposed to be fun, young lady.”

“Yes it is!” the girls chorus back.

That’s the kind of response Williamson and others are hoping for on college campuses around the Twin Cities, where girls are spending their summer building robots and programming them, learning circuitry and applying math to real-world challenges. It’s the kind of intensive, hands-on approach to science that doesn’t often find its way into the regular school day. And it’s just the approach that’s needed to get more girls interested in careers in science and technology.

“What we find is that there’s less and less opportunity in the schools to do these types of real complex, long-term, problem-solving projects in the school day because they’re so driven by tests,” said Jeanine Gregoire, co-founder of Girls in Engineering, Math and Science. “This is really a great platform for them to learn a different set of skills and to apply some of the science, math and technology concepts from school in a kind of cohesive curriculum.”

Science camps also offer another important benefit: they provide girls with a place where it’s OK to ask questions and to solve problems using creativity and cooperation. “In order for them to feel more comfort, they need something ongoing and sustained. It supports them through some difficult times,” Gregoire explained.

GEMS runs its own summer camps for girls in the Minneapolis public school system at Augsburg College. This summer the girls met for eight-hour days twice a week for nine weeks.

The students are joined in the classroom by a total of 15 high school and 8th-grade mentors—girls who’ve been through at least one year of GEMS, and who, like the campers, filled out an application and supplied a recommendation to get into the program.

GEMS camps are free, thanks in large part to grants from Medtronic and the Minneapolis Public Schools. Many of the 110 girls enrolled this year will continue on in after-school GEMS programs offered at 13 Minneapolis schools. The school year programs allow the girls to take their projects to a variety of presentations and competitions. Each fall, the GEMS girls take a robot they’ve developed and programmed themselves to the MN First LEGO-Robotics Challenge.

In Mary Hill’s electricity class at Augsburg, a sign at the front of the classroom lists the scientific attitudes. “Desiring knowledge, respecting reason, relying on data, being skeptical, accepting ambiguity, keeping a positive attitude toward failure.”

Gregoire says she knows how intent most girls this age are on being perfect. GEMS is full of projects they can’t help but mess up.

The girls in Hill’s class have already constructed an alarm system for their bedroom doors. Now the group, mostly fifth-graders, has moved on to basic engineering. Every group has constructed a different way to solve their current challenge: using what they know about circuitry and engineering to move a ball through a maze without the use of gravity or their hands. Within each challenge is a series of smaller challenges. Today, they’re raising a ball up from the floor to their table, dumping it out of its box and starting it on its maze.

One group can’t get their ball to dump out of the box. It’s not a failure; it’s a challenge.

A mentor is there in an instant. “Should we brainstorm?” she asks. “How about if everyone shares an idea?”



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Reader Comments

Posted: Monday, August 29, 2005
Article comment by: David Lindsay

Great story about the science camp for girls! We just concluded a week of LEGOS Mindstorms-Robolab for sixth graders in our district at our regional high school. It was taught by a high school junior girl, a key member of our FIRST Team, #716 and her mother and very well received. We recognize the need to introduce science, math and technology, and tie them in to other disciplines for young women before all the difficulties of doing that come up. Sincerely, Dave Lindsay Housatonic Valley Regional HS, Falls Village, CT



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