Girls’ science clubs spring up at schools

Date Published: 
March 29, 2013

Girls are striding fearlessly into the science classroom, thanks in part to new groups that promote science and robotics. On a typical Thursday afternoon at Selbyville Middle School (SMS), a dozen sixth-graders flock to the Girls’ After-School Robotics Club, where they assemble and program robots.

Coastal Point • Laura Walter: The Girls’ After-School Robotics Club at Selbyville Middle School is having fun with learning.Coastal Point • Laura Walter: The Girls’ After-School Robotics Club at Selbyville Middle School is having fun with learning.This school year, the Indian River School District introduced STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) classes to SMS and Indian River High School. The district partnered with the Girl Scouts of the Chesapeake Bay Council to host programs encouraging young ladies to dive into the sciences.

“We recognized the need to reach the female population and build their interest and confidence in approaching STEM,” said Mary Bixler, IRSD project manager with Race to the Top.

Historically, males have dominated the STEM fields, with limited female representation. When the Gateway to Technology exploratory class at SMS expands to all three grades, students will learn robotics, innovative design and energy in the STEM-focused environment. That will, in turn, lead some students to the new STEM classes at Indian River High School.

“This will give the girls a boost in exposure and encourage them to maybe not take a back seat in a mixed group with boys,” Bixler said.

One Friday afternoon, the girls had to program small Lego Mindstorm robots to drive along a curvy black line taped on the floor.

“Robotics is not an individual sport. Everybody works together,” said club facilitator Annmarie Conroe during a teambuilding activity.

To better understand how robots work, the students had also assembled them — a tricky procedure that lasted two weeks. Then, in groups, students installed color sensors and used a computer program to string together instructions for the robots to follow. They worked to find a combination that allowed the robot to correctly finish its task.

“It’s still open-ended … there’s still room for extrapolation,” said Conroe. “They’re taking away that fear that ‘I can’t do it.’”

One robot, nicknamed Black Magic, only followed the black line for a few seconds before turning around.

“I think we didn’t program the right amount of time,” said Lindsay Phelan.

Back to the drawing board they went. Meanwhile, Justine Fulton hunched over her robot expectantly, but it merely turned in circles, searching for the line. Trial and error is the name of the game, so she adjusted the light sensor.

Everyone had to reprogram their robots — usually more than once — before they were successful. A core concept of STEM is fixing problems and learning from mistakes.

“It’s a challenge for them to think creatively. They really have. It’s great to see them do this because they really do have a blast,” said facilitator Karen Austin. “Some of these programs are hard. You’ve got to sit and do it again and again.”

So why do the girls keep coming back?

“I like robots!” said Dahlia Vincent.

“It’s interesting,” said Morgan Keysey.

“I like engineering and group activities,” said Haley Holloway.

By the day’s end, all of the mobiles were successfully driving along, their color sensors jerking back and forth to follow the curvy black line.

“From day one to now, you can tell their confidence is so much better,” said Conroe’s husband and helper, Greg, who recalled the girls’ initial hesitation. “Now, it’s like, ‘Let me go, let me do it.’”

The club formed in January for all girls, not just Scouts. It also opened the door to STEM professionals, including volunteers from the American Association of University Women (AAUW). From math professors to careers scientists, several ladies lend their expertise to each afterschool activity.

Conroe told the group that some hospitals have delivery robots, which follow lines in the hallway to transport supplies. Before raising her own three daughters (all Girl Scouts and science lovers), Conroe previously worked as a hematologist in the laboratory of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Elementary-age students have gotten in the STEM spirit, too. Girls Discovery Clubs began at John M. Clayton and Phillip C. Showell elementary schools, where girls learn all aspects of science. Their club will study geocaching with GPS, extract the DNA from strawberries and begin keeping scientific notebooks.

The girls seem to enjoy the problem solving, and they definitely feel empowered.

“You can be creative, and girls can do anything you want!” said Hailey Clark.