2008 Changemaker: MPOWER camp: math + science = tons of girl fun

Rikki Wagstrom, Cindy Kaus, Julie Maxson, Sarah Hansen

Math and science homework and summer vacation don’t typically go together. Especially when you add 20 middle school girls to the equation. But when homework equals homemade stained glass windows, original rap music and 3-D blueprints for a new school, what is typical flies right out the window-just ask four Metropolitan State University professors. They’ve found that making learning fun is key to getting girls interested in the fields of math and science.

The MPOWER summer math and science camp for St. Paul girls is the brainchild of Rikki Wagstrom, associate professor of mathematics. Together with Cindy Kaus, also an associate math professor at Metro, and Sarah Hansen, assistant director of the college’s Center for Academic Excellence, she founded MPOWER, originally a five-day math summer camp for middle school girls, in 2005. “I love mathematics but what I enjoy the most is bringing my love [of it] to other people,” Wagstrom said. “I like explaining to others that everyone can have success in this field.

“Middle school is when these students are making decisions about what they might like to study,” Wagstrom said. “We are empowering urban girls through science and mathematics. We need more programs like this because the message is not being heard loud enough-the message for girls that there are exciting careers in mathematics and science out there for them if they are interested.”

This past summer the MPOWER staff made some, well, empowering changes to keep the girls coming back. They expanded the program to include “graduates,” Wagstrom said. And next summer those high school girls will serve as mentors to younger ones. “Using the older girls is a great way to keep the younger ones’ interest up-and they serve as great role models for the younger girls.” And the program also expanded to include science, with the addition of Julie Maxson, an assistant professor of biology at Metro.

“It was perfect when our scientist joined because science fits nicely with the applications of mathematics,” Wagstrom said.

Part of the MPOWER difference is staying in touch with the girls and making it a priority to get them to return the following year. “There are science and math outreach programs for youth that last a day or a week but are one-time only and don’t offer any follow up,” Wagstrom said. “They have nothing in place to help sustain their interest.”

And pricier math and science programs are often out of reach for families. MPOWER is free to any St. Paul middle school girl who wants to attend. The professors fund the expenses by applying for foundation grants and Metro itself provides support, too. Girls receive a free lunch and a ride to and from the Metro State campus by one of its leaders. “We rent vans and drive the girls because they don’t have their licenses yet,” she said. “This way we get to see where they live and meet their families. It is a nice way to build trust.”

As important as what the girls learn at MPOWER is getting support at home to keep learning math and science, Wagstrom said. “Parents need to put a positive outlook on these fields that have somehow gotten a bad reputation. They can help by saying, ‘Hey, that looks fun. Let’s work on it together.’

“We are trying to teach everyone that having a strong work ethic isn’t bad,” she said. “Doing hard work is fun and it gets rewarded-not just in a good job for these girls down the road but in their own personal satisfaction today.”

Get Involved
To learn more about MPOWER or to enroll a girl in next summer’s camp, email Rikki Wagstrom: rikki.wagstrom@metrostate.edu.