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Centre students helping middle school girls reach their STEM potential

Program encourages girls to be interested in science, technology, engineering and math

DANVILLE, Ky. (Nov. 25, 2014) — Centre College student Ceci Vollbrecht has organized a group of Centre students to act as mentors to teach Boyle County Middle School girls STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and math).

Ceci Vollbrecht, right, has started a program at Centre to help middle school girls gain an interest in STEM skills.

The group encourages middle school girls to reach their potential in fields that are typically 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,” said Vollbrecht, who plans to major in chemistry.

Leonard Demoranville, assistant professor of chemistry and the organization’s faculty sponsor, said 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,” Demoranville said. “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,” Vollbrecht said.

Boyle County Middle School club sponsor Julie Harris said 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,” Harris said.

Centre students hope to build self-confidence in the middle school students, Vollbrecht said.

“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,” she said.

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.

Last week Boyle County Middle School students visited Centre’s campus to tour several labs and speak with Jessica Wooten, assistant professor of biology, about her research with DNA sequencing.

Vollbrecht plans to take the students on another field trip in February to the University of Kentucky’s Engineers Day.

Working closely with Demoranville, Vollbrecht 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.