Wesleyan partners with Middletown Public Schools to encourage girls in science

Erika Taylor, associate professor of chemistry, did not have a single female science teacher during her academic career. The lack of representation of women in the field affected her journey.

“I had to swim downstream the whole time. That’s how it felt,” Taylor said.

In an effort to make sure other young women don’t feel the same way, Taylor and Meng-ju Renee Sher ’07, assistant professor of physics, are working hard to show girls that a life in the sciences is desirable and accessible.

The Girls in Science program, a partnership between Wesleyan and Middletown Public Schools, hopes to help young girls in grades four through six see themselves as scientists. The annual summer camp, which began in 2014 and had been on hiatus for the past two years due to the global pandemic, ran Aug. 8-12 at Macdonaugh Elementary School in Middletown.

Wesleyan faculty, including Assistant Professor of Mathematics Emily Stark, Fisk Professor of Natural Sciences Ishita Mukerji, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Alison O’Neil and Assistant Professor of Archeology Kate Brunson, worked alongside Trisha Andrew of the University of Massachusetts-Amherith, taught lessons. Arcari and MPS liaison Lauren Mikulak to create a meaningful experience.

“To continue with the analogy, we’re trying to create a small, sheltered place for these girls to swim a little bit in science,” Taylor said.

Girls in Science provides opportunities for girls and young women to explore their interests in science and develop critical skills to use in their scientific research and beyond. Throughout the week, students do experiments and projects, spending quality time with each other and with mentors from Wesleyan and local high schools. “We hope the students will be fully immersed for a week and see that science can be fun and see us as role models,” Sher said.

There is a serious basis beneath the fun. Middle school is where most young girls lose interest in STEM-related subjects, Taylor said. Pressures to conform to social expectations can often derail young girls who have previously expressed an interest in STEM subjects. By intervening at this age by providing examples of women making their living in the profession, Taylor, Sher and their colleagues hope to stem the tide.

Taylor has heard from parents who described an increase in their daughters’ grades after going to camp. Still others who participated in the program years ago have gone on to study STEM-related subjects.

“This is an opportunity for them to meet other enthusiasts, because (female scientists) may not be well represented in their school. For students who haven’t had the exposure, hopefully they’ll find something they like and consider science in a new way,” Taylor said.

Sher recalled seeing the girls get so engrossed in working with the solar cells that plans for the rest of the day were put on hold while they finished their work. “We want them to get the actual experience that science isn’t always just following steps A, B, C, D to a result. You have to tinker and play. And if it doesn’t work, go back to the drawing board and try again,” Sher said.

It is gratifying for Taylor and Sher to see the students flourish during the week. They begin to share more about themselves. The approach to their scientific projects is creative in a new, novel way.

They may even begin to see themselves a little differently.

At the beginning of the week, Taylor, Sher and her colleagues ask the young women to draw a scientist. Almost without fail it is an old man in a white coat – a caricature of Einstein.

“At the end of the week, we ask them to draw the scientists again to see if their image changes. What they draw is much more like them,” said Sher.

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