Centre students obtain grant to help local youth reach their potential in STEM fields
With more than 75 student organizations and a campus culture that values civic engagement, opportunities abound for students at Centre College to become leaders in the community. Ceci Vollbrecht ’17 (pictured above, right) recently launched a weekly outreach program at Boyle County Middle School to keep young girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). She has organized a group of Centre students to act as mentors for the middle school girls, encouraging them to reach their potential in fields that continue to be dominated by men.
“Since girls drop out of math and science courses at a much higher rate than boys do in middle school, we want to get them excited about STEM and give them the confidence to continue in these subjects,” explains Vollbrecht, who plans to major in chemistry and was active in a similar outreach program in high school.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Leonard Demoranville is the organization’s faculty sponsor and notes that middle school is the critical period for keeping girls interested in STEM.
“Women remain underrepresented in most STEM fields today, and research shows that middle school is the age at which we start losing girls from science,” says Demoranville. “Figuring out how to keep women in the pipeline for STEM careers at an early age is really important for the discipline.”
Each week Vollbrecht plans educational activities intended to make STEM as fun and engaging as possible. A recent engineering activity challenged the girls to build towers out of dry spaghetti and marshmallows, while a chemistry lesson came to life with homemade lava lamps they created with oil, water, food coloring and Alka-Seltzer tablets.
“There’s always a lesson behind each activity, but the girls get to explore and have fun, so they are often very eager to learn more,” says Vollbrecht.
According to the club’s Boyle County Middle School (BCMS) sponsor Julie Harris, the Centre students’ positive influence on the younger girls extends far beyond the academic sphere.
“They not only encourage the girls to see science as a viable career option but they especially help them to form bonds with other girls and to feel good about themselves,” says Harris.
“We want to build up their self-confidence,” agrees Vollbrecht. “Our goal is to help some of the quieter girls who may not necessarily speak up in class to be comfortable enough at our meetings to share their ideas.”
Studies indicate that access to female role models is also crucial to keeping young girls on the path toward STEM careers and participation in clubs such as this can impact their enrollment in advanced science, math and technology courses in high school and college.
“All of the Centre girls are such inspirations for our girls in terms of their character and the goals they are pursuing for their lives,” Harris says.
Consequently, in order to give the students a better idea of what it means to practice science at a higher level as a woman, the group visited Centre’s campus last week to tour several labs in Young Hall and to speak with Assistant Professor of Biology Jessica Wooten about her research with DNA sequencing.
Vollbrecht plans to take the students on another field trip this February to the University of Kentucky’s Engineers Day, and she has worked diligently to secure funding to make this possible. Working closely with Demoranville, she applied for and received a $1,000 mini-grant from the National Girls Collaborative Project, an organization dedicated to increasing opportunities and improving experiences for girls in STEM.
Demoranville was impressed by Vollbrecht’s initiative, particularly given the fact that it is unusual for students to seek outside funding for their organizations.
“It was really meaningful for her to be able to go through the whole process of securing a grant from beginning to end, especially since undergraduates don’t typically experience this important aspect of research,” he says.
The club is certainly poised for future success, and Harris says it has already exceeded her expectations.
“This group has been everything I had thought it would become and a whole lot more,” she says. “I think it is good for the partnership BCMS has with Centre. Our students learn to aspire to be like these Centre girls, who in turn are giving so much back to our community.”
Learn more about the National Girls Collaborative Project.
by Caitlan Cole