Growing a love of science in girls

New youth program for girls aims to increase diversity in science, technology, math and engineering

Inside the Eureka! program run by Girls Inc. Credit: Ellen Schmidt

Imagine a room full of tweens begging to play a game based on mathematical biology and you’ll have a sense of what it’s like to witness Eureka!, a new science program for grade 8–12 girls run by Girls Inc. at the YWCA of Minneapolis.

Meant to engage young girls, particularly girls of color, in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — collectively known as STEM — this five-year program partners with the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota to offer laboratory experience, lectures by university faculty, fieldtrips and many other activities to the girls who participate.

“It’s a huge resource that the girls get to be on campus and be in these labs and meet students and professors,” Christa Perkins, program director of Girls Inc. at the YWCA of Minneapolis, said.

Perkins said there is a lot of STEM programing for teens in the city, but Eureka! is unique in its long-term engagement, financial accessibility and girl-only focus. Research indicates the attitudes toward math of boys and girls begin to diverge by the second grade, with girls seeing math as something for boys, she said.

“We really want to be intentional to change those messages that our girls are getting, specifically our girls of color who already are underrepresented in [STEM] areas.”

The university is involved with several initiatives to increase diversity in STEM, though these girls are among the youngest it has worked with, Kelsi Klaers, the outreach coordinator at the university’s College of Science and Engineering, said.

“A special consideration this year was to try and find faculty who were capable of teaching at an eighth grade level — a challenge for many of them, but a fun one I think they’ve risen to and are excited about,” Klaers said.

Free to all its participants, Eureka! offers regular school year activities throughout all five years of the program. The first two years, participants attend a four-week summer camp, where they spend half their time learning about through labs, lectures and activities and the rest of the time doing sports and learning about personal development.

In the third year of the program the summer camp is replaced by a four-week internship, during which the girls are paired with an organization such as Boston Scientific, Proto Labs or the City of Minneapolis. The last two years of Eureka! replace summer activities with less-structured college prep and more leadership opportunities such as internships, jobs and mentoring.

The Eureka! program been incorporated in a number of cities across the country and is run by Girls Inc., a national non-profit focused on empowerment of young girls through educational activities.

Every year, the program accepts roughly 30 students entering the eighth grade. Having only just started, the program will continue to grow for the next five years until it reaches its capacity of about 150 students.

Perkins said Eureka! recruitment focused on schools with a higher percentage of people of color and low income students. By far, the majority of those participating this year are girls of color, and Perkins noted many of them would be the first in their families to earn a university degree.

Hasna, whose science teacher suggested Eureka! to her after she kept sleeping through his class, said she had hated science before joining the program but now really likes it.

“At school, all I see is a board. You have to write, copy, (take) tests — that’s the only thing I see in school,” she said. “But here you get to try new things. It’s really cool and amazing.”

Many of the girls said they preferred learning about STEM at Eureka! rather than at their schools, citing the hands-on activities such as labs as one of their favorite parts of the program. Klaers noted some of the participants have said they’ve never had laboratory experiences in school.

[The girls’] science programs in elementary schools, especially Minneapolis public schools, are minimal … so to provide them with these opportunities is really great,” she said.

A couple of girls showed an awareness of the inequalities that exist within STEM fields. Ashanti said she hadn’t given the program much thought, but said she realizes now it plays an important role in defying “gender stereotypes.”

“They always say that women aren’t smart enough to do stuff like this and [Eureka!] is proof that we are and that we can do the same thing that everybody else can,” she said.

Janaan, another participant, said she has loved science since she was three years old, but participating in Eureka! has now got her thinking about how STEM can play a role in her future.

“It’s affecting me by making me want to do it more. It has me thinking about going to this college or something because I like STEM and I like science,” she said. “If I could go to [The College of Science and Engineering], that’d be great.”

The majority of the girls interviewed said the closed environment has made them more comfortable and less intimidated to participate. Some noted it was nice not having “cute boys” around to distract them.

Klaers says one of her favorite parts of the program is the “aha!” moment when a student suddenly understands a concept she had been struggling with.

“Yesterday, we had one student in particular who was really struggling with the math component of the mathematical biology unit we’ve been doing,” she explained.

“To be able to work with her and share it with her in a way that made her go, ‘I know it!’ and then she wanted to share in front of the group about what she learned, it was really great to see that,” she said. “… I really love those moments.”