Thirteen-year-old Sotonye Green came to a startling realization as she extracted DNA from a banana and unscrambled a cryptic “spy” message: Science and math are fun.
“We did some pretty cool stuff,” said Sotonye, who will be an eighth-grader this fall at Westside Middle School in Omaha. “I learned things I never learned in school before.”
Sotonye was one of about 30 middle school girls to attend a four-week program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha last month highlighting the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Eureka is a national program created and funded by Girls Inc. It was offered for the first time in Nebraska this year with the help of a $40,000 grant.
The girls who participated all are involved with Omaha's Girls Inc. chapter and attended at no charge. If they attend the program every summer until they graduate from high school, they'll have an edge when they apply for college scholarships.
“The data shows that girls who stay in the Eureka program go to college,” said Carol Mitchell, a UNO professor of science education who helped coordinate the program on campus.
The program's goal is to give young women the confidence to take more classes, including advanced classes, in STEM fields. Girls Inc.'s research showed that girls are less likely to take advanced classes in math and the sciences or go on to study those fields in college.
As a result, the organization says, women make up less than one in five people employed in computer science, mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences.
“In the past it's always been white males,” Mitchell said. “We haven't been intentional in our effort to promote science, math, technology and engineering among women. This is an effort to change that.”
In 2009, 401 girls participated in the program nationally.
During their month at UNO, the girls learned fractions using colorful blocks. On another day they extracted DNA from a banana and built a DNA strand using toothpicks and marshmallows. They also learned about how math — in this case, cryptography — can decipher a secret message.
“My message said ‘Go to Paris,' ” said Nia Allison, 12, a soon-to-be eighth-grader at McMillan Magnet Middle School.
The classes were taught by UNO science and math professors, and Girls Inc. staffers were on hand to run the show. When they weren't doing cool math and science stuff, they learned to swim or played another sport.
Girls begin the program before they enter eighth grade. If they remain in it, they attend the summer classes at UNO the first three years, then can earn an internship in a STEM field the final two years.
“What we are doing is different ways to engage girls,” Mitchell said. “We want them to feel confident to ask a question in class and comfortable saying ‘Hey, I can do that.' ”
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