Inspiring passions for science, math in young women

From excavating artifacts to cooking up a stir fry to moving like a polymer, the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel was a flurry of activity Tuesday, when hundreds of girls came from throughout West Hawaii to explore possible futures in science for Girls Exploring Math and Sciences.

“In the workshops, they get to be like a mini veterinarian, a mini dermatologist, a mini archaeologist,” said Cindy Armer, chairperson of Girls Exploring Math and Sciences (GEMS). “They’re not learning about it, they’re getting to experience it.”

It’s an event that has been held in West Hawaii since the mid-1990s and offers fifth graders a chance to explore a whole spectrum of careers in math and science by meeting and interacting with women working in those fields.

“I really think it’s not people just on TV or in movies or in magazines or on social media,” Armer said. “It’s people who are real-life people who are devoting their day.”

The event is put on by the American Association of University Women — Kona branch and offers girls a chance to see the breadth of opportunities that are open to them in science and math.

“I think a lot of them, because of their environment, they don’t see themselves as being engineers,” said Armer. “They don’t have role models necessarily right there in their lives that they see, and they don’t picture themselves furthering themselves and going into some of these careers.”

And among the presenters were several who either discovered a passion for science or deepened their interest when they themselves came to GEMS as fifth graders.

Kea Clebsch said before she came to GEMS when she was in fifth grade, she thought science was more about plants and animals.

“But it was really cool to see the whole engineering aspect of it, which is something that, now as a freshman, I’d like to go more into,” she said. “I hadn’t really seen that part of science, and now that’s my favorite part about it.”

Now a freshman at Kealakehe High School, Clebsch returned to GEMS on Tuesday as part of a group of students from her school teaching GEMS attendees about electronics and how to make circuits.

Also with her was Alexandra Ruff, who said they had a couple different options for outreach projects for their school and that she was excited when she saw GEMS was one of them.

“I really wanted to do this,” she said, “because it just feels like it completes a circle, since I went here myself and now I get to teach.”

Girls who spent the day learning and interacting about everything from veterinary medicine to computer programming too said they enjoyed having an opportunity to explore facets of science, technology, engineering and math as well as the career paths they could follow in the future.

Lilia Dudoit and Jona Meheula, fifth graders at Kealakehe Elementary School, both said they had been looking forward to participating in GEMS.

“I thought it would be like a cool opportunity,” said Meheula, “thought it’d be fun.”

Dudoit said she’d like to be a scientist in the future.

“I want to create a lot of new stuff,” she said.

Dudoit said she particularly liked the workshop in which she was able to make “slime,” part of a workshop on polymer chemistry led by Sue Roberts, a retired chemist and member of the American Association of University Women.

In addition to making “slime” and “gak,” Roberts also taught the girls about polymers by encouraging them to link arms in different ways to demonstrate the structures and properties of single-chained and cross-linked polymers.

“They get to learn both by seeing and hearing, but also kinetically,” Roberts said, “And so I’m trying to get as many ways for the girls to understand how this is working and something they might remember.”

And she too said she hopes girls come away from GEMS with a realization that math and science can be both fun and interesting, “and that it isn’t just a guy thing.”

She said it’s telling that the number of girls interested in registering for the event has grown dramatically over the years.

“So there is more interest in coming and doing this,” she said. “And you look at the high school and junior high girls who are presenting, and they came to GEMS as fifth graders and now they’re continuing in robotics or media or various other technical fields as they go into junior high and high school. And that’s really exciting.”

By Cameron Miculka West Hawaii Today

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