STEAM camp steers local girls toward science

MIDDLEBURY — Nine Middlebury-area girls are spending their spring break week studying science, math, chemistry and other subjects that can scare the socks off a lot of kids.

No, they are not on academic probation, in need of “extra help.”

They are doing it for fun, as part of the new MiddSTEAM Camp, a collaboration of the Middlebury Parks & Recreation Department and Middlebury College. It was spearheaded by Middlebury Parks & Recreation Director Terri Arnold, who has been a veritable dynamo in creating new sports and enrichment offerings for area residents.

The camp’s inspiration first came from an article Arnold read on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and the importance of introducing girls to that subject matter early to spark an interest in related jobs currently dominated by men.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey, women make up around 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, but only 24 percent of workers in STEM fields. While the number of women majoring in science-related fields has been on the rise, many of those same women aren’t using their degrees to land STEM-related jobs, noted Molly Costanza-Robinson, associate professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College.

“They call it the ‘leaky pipeline,’” Costanza-Robinson, a MiddSTEAM Camp instructor, said of the post-graduation thinning of women in the science fields. “We have all of these women who have made it through college chemistry and then they start finding other fields, or maybe science isn’t as welcoming to women.”

Arnold thought it would be great to offer a local program or camp to help plug that leaky pipeline. Late last year, she made a pitch on the college’s work study website seeking an assistant to help create a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) camp tailored to middle-school-age girls (grades 5-8).

Melanie Jane (M.J.) Pascual, a freshman computer science major, responded to Arnold’s appeal. Pascual had been looking for a way to make a difference through the college’s Community Engagement Office.

“I had been doing STEM outreach, specifically in computer science, for two years,” Pascual said, referring in part to past volunteer work in her high school in Oakland, Calif. “I was really into it.”

As a result, Arnold didn’t have to give Pascual a lot of prompting or direction on the MiddSTEAM camp assignment.

“M.J. locked in on it right away,” Arnold said. “This was right up her alley. This was a perfect project to give to her to bring her up on her organizational skills, how to contact people and develop a curriculum. She has been a rock star; she has embraced it.”

Over five months, Pascual took a lead in putting together a week-long camp that would fire up all the pistons in the STEAM genre. She recruited several college faculty members and officials from Vermont Integrated Architecture (VIA) to put some STEAM in the new camp’s engine.

Among those on the camp roster are Michele Dube, assistant in Science Instruction in Chemistry/Biochemistry; Costanza-Robinson; Andrea Murray of Vermont Integrated Architecture, or VIA; Professor of Mathematics Priscilla Bremser; and a variety of Middlebury College students majoring in science, math and artistic fields.

Instructors declined compensation, meaning the $150 tuition per student will help support Middlebury Parks & Rec.

SCIENCE SURPRISES

Organizers decided to hold the camp this week, which happens to be spring break for area public schools. Nine girls signed up. And since organizers didn’t want to make campers feel like they were spending their school vacation inside a classroom, the instructors focused on putting fun in learning.

Take Tuesday morning, for example.

The nine young campers who showed up at “Chemistry to the Rescue!” were told they would spend a couple of hours learning about “polymers.” Polymers are a class of natural or synthetic substances composed of large molecules that are multiples of simpler chemical units called monomers. The campers were told that polymers make up many of the materials in living organisms and provide the foundations of such man-made materials as concrete, paper and plastics.

But rather than staring at a blackboard or the periodic table, the campers put polymers into practice. They mixed glue, water, food coloring and then borax to make “gluep,” a Play-Doh-type substance the girls gleefully kneaded, bounced and stretched. Each of them held their polymer-laden gluep in the air and timed how long it took for the substance to stretch six inches. The more viscous the substance, the slower the stretch, they learned.

“Chemistry never gets old; it’s always cool,” Costanza-Robinson exhorted her charges as they put their rubbery spheres to the test.

Campers also learned one of the sweeter rewards of science.

Costanza-Robinson recited a new experiment using what she described as “equal suspension of protein, sugar and fat that is shown to be non-toxic and orally appealing.”

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE STUDENTS Rachael Morris, left, Betty Kodia and Kae Fink make ice cream with the help of a bottle of liquid nitrogen during a science camp for middle school girls at Middlebury’s new recreation center Tuesday morning. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

They watched wide-eyed as some of Costanza-Robinson’s college students added the ingredients to a bowl and vigorously stirred in some liquid nitrogen to create a smoky, mysterious, frigid brew. It didn’t take long for the liquid to whisk into a solid, tasty payoff — ice cream. And the instructors just happened to have some chocolate sauce, whipped topping and bowls to allow the campers to share in the techno-treat.

The girls also learned that it would be foolhardy to challenge Dube in a “find the hidden water in the cup” trick.

Campers watched as Dube poured a small amount of water into one of three identical, red plastic cups lined up on a table. She then shifted the cups around repeatedly, cautioning the campers not to lose track of the one containing the water.

After around 30 seconds of shifting, she stopped and asked the girls to pick the cup with the water.

Nope. Nil. Nada.

All three were empty.

But unlike most magicians, Dube revealed her secret: She had placed a polymer substance — just like the one used to create absorbency in diapers — into one of the cups prior to pouring in the water. It had soaked up all the water.

Science 1, leger de main 0.

Clare Molineau, a Mary Hogan Elementary 6th-grader, enjoyed the fun introduction to chemistry.

“I’m a science-y type of person,” she said, “and I like ice cream, obviously.”

Clare particularly liked making gluep.

Amanda Kearns, also in grade 6, had nothing planned for spring break.

“I thought, ‘Why not try out a camp?” she said. “It seemed like it would be fun.”

Amanda conceded she was at MiddSTEAM Camp more for the arts than the sciences. She wants to pursue a career in theater and/or dance.

“I think (science) is a fun hobby,” she said.

Alex Bonavita, also in grade 6, aspires to becoming a photographer and basketball player. But science camp was fun this week.

Asked to name her favorite part about the chemistry program, she replied “Everything.”

IN THE CLASSROOM

Costanza-Robinson said her classes at Middlebury have virtually an equal men-women ratio. It’s after college that some women tend to bail on careers in chemistry and other sciences, she said. At the teaching ranks, there also appears to be about 50-50 ratio of men and women at the associate professor level, but one tends to see more men when it comes to tenured faculty in many colleges and universities, Costanza-Robinson noted.

“There are a lot of folks trying to figure out why, and trying to reverse it,” Costanza-Robinson said of the relative paucity of women in chemistry-related fields. “We want anyone who is fascinated (by chemistry) to feel welcomed by it.”

Costanza-Robinson doesn’t expect every one of her students to pursue a career in the sciences, but she at least hopes they gain an “understanding that there is a molecular reason why everything in the world does what it does.”

“Wonder is the start of it all,” she said.

Other activities at the MiddSTEAM Camp included digital spatial analysis, improvisational comedy, sensory perception in the brain, jewelry making, introduction to architectural design, “math bingo,” the study of DNA, Adobe Photoshop, and saving the “Physics-verse” from evil “Dr. Entropy.”

Arnold said she hopes to offer the camp on a seasonal basis, and also open it up to boys.

“It has really worked out perfectly,” Arnold said. “And I am really proud that as a parks and recreation department, we can offer something a little bit different.”


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