UMass Dartmouth promotes diversity with STEM4Girls program

Oct 1, 2022

Girls from across the Southcoast gathered at UMass Dartmouth on Saturday, Oct. 1, for a day of “hands-on, minds-on activity” as the university hosted its 10th-annual STEM4Girls Day.

Chandra Orrill, Director of UMass Dartmouth’s Kaput Center for Innovation & Research in STEM Education and an organizer of the event, said that the program is designed to address the “critical need for diversifying the pipeline to STEM.”

According to US Census data, almost three-quarters of STEM jobs — shorthand for fields involving science, technology, engineering, and math — are occupied by men, while data from Pew Research shows that nearly two-thirds of STEM positions belong to white people.

Orrill said that it is important to make these professions more accessible to girls at an early age, which is why the program includes girls from grades three to eight.

She explained that research has shown that girls start out just as interested as boys in STEM but tend to move away from the subjects as they approach high school.

“Around eighth grade, that’s when we lose them,” she said.

She added that the timing of the decline in interest is especially important because STEM fields require a lot of education which can be delayed if students don’t get on the right track early on.

“If you say you’re not a STEM person [in high school], well, you just bought yourself another year or two of college,” Orrill said. “I would love to see these girls go into STEM careers, but more than that, I want them to love STEM.”

At the event, about 85 girls got to participate in a variety of activities taught by professors and educators from around the commonwealth.

In one classroom, Cyndie Leveille-Webster, a professor in the clinical sciences department of Tufts University’s veterinary school, taught the students about the importance of sound in the veterinary field.

After a brief presentation, Leveille-Webster challenged the girls to build their own stethoscopes from bits of household items like funnels and rubber tubing, which they would then use to diagnose the reason for a chihuahua’s cough.

In another room, David Welty, a teacher at Fairhaven High School, taught a group of eager students how to make ice cream from scratch, using salt and ice to freeze the cream.

At the end of the thermodynamics lesson, which involved 10 minutes of shaking a bag of ice, the tired young scientists happily consumed the fruits of their experiment.

One activity was run by a group of eighth-grade students from Our Sisters’ School in New Bedford, who helped their younger peers with three separate experiments.

At one station, the students used playdough, electrical wires, and a computer program called “Makey Makey” to control a computer simply by touching different conductive surfaces with their fingers.

“You’re basically conducting energy from your body to draw,” said Drew Simmons, who was using the device to control a digital Etch-a-Sketch.

In addition to the many activities, the program participants were treated to presentations from a Great White Shark researcher at the Atlantic Great White Shark Conservancy, students from Our Sisters’ School, and STEAM the Streets, a local organization devoted to increasing diversity in STEM.

“So they’re doing all kinds of different things that are all exciting and hands-on,” Orrill said. “It’s just a bunch of girls doing STEM.”