Photo: Cassandra Day / Hearst Connecticut Media
MIDDLETOWN — The progression of what 9- to 12-year-old girls consider a typical scientist undergoes a remarkable transformation during the course of a single week of intensive study at Wesleyan University.
During the first lesson of the Girls in Science summer camp, young ladies are asked to draw what the word “scientist” conjures up in their heads.
“It’s really interesting, because at the beginning, they would draw Einstein — people we typically think of as scientists,” said Karimi Brynn, pursuing her master’s degree in molecular biology at Wesleyan.
“The last day, a lot of them draw themselves, which is awesome, because they see themselves as scientists, or they’ll draw another female they learned about. That’s the goal of this camp, to inspire women in science,” Brynn said.
As an introduction to the week, Erika Taylor, associate professor of chemistry, teaches a lesson on observing things as a scientist would, by measuring temperature, distance, mass and other features.
She’s co-founder of the program, now in its sixth year, a partnership between the university and Middletown Public Schools.
“We’re trying to make it fun,” she said, which saw the girls measuring solutions of tea water, ice water, and another at room temperature in Fahrenheit and Celsius Monday morning. At the conclusion, Taylor graphed their slightly different readings on the chalkboard.
Each young lady was engaged in the session, talking animatedly, thinking creatively, as well as effortlessly applying what they had just learned to the lesson at hand.
“Who is right? This is my favorite answer: Everybody!” She then explained a certain set of scientists may use the same instrument, but since there are many different types, each will produce varying results.
“We have wild, wonderful, magical diversity that makes us all who we are. When I do something, even today versus tomorrow, I might get a slightly different answer, because maybe I’m going to be a little more tired, so my eyes aren’t going to focus as clearly on where the line is,” Taylor explained.
“Maybe somebody’s getting more or less practice at measuring (an) analog thermometer. When we’re a scientist, we’ll do something over and over again. Just make sure we feel confident in what our answer is. That’s how we can make things a little more accurate,” she said.
Every day of the week, different faculty members serve as guest instructors, such as earth and environmental scientist Marty Gilmore, who studies Mars, who will talk about the solar system. A mathematician and computer scientist will focus on patterns and coding.
Teaching artist Meredith Arcari Luciano supplements what the students come to understand each day with an artistic activity, intended to help them tap into both their creative and practical brain functions.
Monday’s lesson incorporated how to measure distances. Arcari Luciano showed them how to make a grid on top of their insect art project as a way to demonstrate symmetry.
“They have to make sure it mirrors on either side,” she said.
Later in the day, there was a unit on bacteria, during which egg cartons, sequins, string and googly eyes were employed to create a sculpture.
“They’re going to make sure they have the nucleus, the pili, all the aspects a bacteria needs to be able to move,” Arcari Luciano said.
Another unit on comets will have the students using watercolors.
“It re-establishes what they’re learning in the classroom. It gives them more of a visual. For me, that’s how I learn. When I’m creating something, and I’m drawing it out, I’m able to better understand the concept rather than having it be told to me,” Arcari Luciano said.
“That’s a great way to help them remember it, and they can take it home, too. It’s not just in their notebook, where they have a little drawing,” she said.
More and more women are entering the field of science, which once attracted men exclusively.
“Physics and engineering, for example, have relatively less females versus psychology,” Brynn has found. However, “at Wesleyan, there’s a huge focus on underrepresented groups of people in science.”
Neuroscientist Alison O’Neil, assistant professor of chemistry, researches ALS. Later in the week, she’ll teach the girls about the different regions of the brain and what they do.
The lesson will be reinforced with the students making a “brain hat,” a cut-out diagram, of which they can color in each of the lobes and fold the cardboard to customize their creation.
“It’s kind of macro: what the brain does,” she said.
“What part of the brain do you use if you touch something hot and you want to move your hand away from it?” she’ll ask. “The answer is you use two different places. You have the place where you feel things, where you register that something’s hot, but then you also use the other part of your brain which says, ‘Move.’ ”
To demonstrate neurons, O’Neil will use a game as a teaching tool, in this case, a heavy-duty rope, pool float and ping-pong balls.
The experiment involves tossing the balls toward a cup another girl is holding as she tries to catch them. O’Neil will ask them to throw the balls at different distances from their partner — near and close.
“When everybody has one in their cup, has received a signal, they will shoot the pool float down the rope,” she explained. “That’ll show if we’re going to send a signal fast, they need to be close.”
Taylor stopped by the station where the girls were measuring the weight of different objects using a digital scale: a grain of rice, cherries and watermelon.
The first part of several experiments asked the students to guess what they thought each weighed and record it in a notebook. Most of them started with a single unit — until Taylor suggested they find a “friendly number” which could be easily divided, such as two or 10, rather than weighing individual grains, which ranged from .01 and .015 grams in weight.
Later in the week will come sessions on antibiotic development, DNA, bacteria and how to kill it.
“We always try to allow for some ‘doing’ time as well as some thinking/writing time. We’re mixing up whether their sitting and learning or physically learning,” Taylor said.
Wesleyan students, as well as high school students participating in the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce Youth at Work summer employment program, assist during the camp. Liberty Bank provides funding support for the initiative.
For information, visit bit.ly/2KiBmJa.
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