Michele tells us that the program was developed specifically for the middle school age group because it is such an important turning point for girls in their academics. “Almost all research shows that middle school is a critical time for girls. Up until 6th or 7th grade, girls actually outperform boys in science and math. And then there is a sharp decline in 7th and 8th grade for girls.” Although this occurs for many reasons, Michele explained some of the most important. “Often girls have a misconception about engineering.” She tells us that they ask the girls on the first day of the weeklong camp what they think engineering is. “They usually say something related to cars or bridges. And yes, cars and bridges and trains have engineering involved in them, but so do lots of other things. [We are trying to show them] there is a broad range of things they can be interested in and still be engineers. It’s about opening their minds to the possibility [of becoming an engineer].”
Other reasons often cited for this turning point for girls in science and math classes is a lack of role models that are in these fields and certain stereotypes about engineering. Michele tells us that Penn undergraduate students who work at the camp are one of the most valuable parts of the experience for the girls. “[Penn students] are not the types of students who are just going to sit in a cubby and do their homework. They’re well rounded, they have lots of interests. It’s okay to be a dancer and an engineer.” She says that it is really the counselors that the young girls are going to remember most.
It’s okay to be a dancer and an engineer.”
Within the program, there are several tracts that the girls can choose to pursue, including one for young middle schoolers, older middle schoolers, and an all-robotics track. This year, there were seventy-seven students involved in the program. In order to run all the activities associated with the camp, Michele relies heavily on the support of faculty and staff to develop and run the scientific workshops. One of the most involved and most highly rated workshops is run by Professor Andrew Tsourkas (Bioengineering) and Sevile Mannickarottu, the Director of the Instructional Laboratories in the BE Department. Michele tells us that after her first meeting with them seven years ago and hearing about the pretty high level experiments and demonstrations they had planned, “I was worried. I was like, remember, they’re twelve!” But, every year they have pulled off a multi-day forensics experiment complete with a murder by pipette. Michele is always the “murderer”, in the computer lab, with a pipette. To figure all this out, the girls are called upon to perform a number of experiments, from the isolation of DNA all the way through to DNA transformation.
Heidi Norton, who helped Dr. Tsourkas and Sevile run the bioengineering lab this summer, tells me, “In the first day of experiments in the bioengineering lab, the girls learn about DNA and how it is the code for life. They extract their own DNA and store it in brightly colored necklace vials. The next day, the students walk into lab and encounter caution tape blocking off one corner of the lab with the outline of a body on the ground. They see blood spatters leading away from the corpse outline to the trash and out to the hallway. Dr. Tsourkas tells the girls that they’ve had a crazy night in lab because some one was murdered. The police left the evidence so that the girls can perform their own experiments to figure out who committed the murder. The girls are given the DNA of 5 suspects as well as the murderer. Over the next few days, the girls perform restriction digests and gel electrophoresis in order to determine which of the suspects is the murderer. During the time the girls are waiting for incubations or digestions, they race to translate a DNA sequence into a protein sequence which spells out the name of the murder weapon “Pipette”. There’s even a “bloody” pipette in the trashcan that the more observant girls discovered on the first day. After the girls interpret what the various bands on their DNA gels mean, they discover that Michele Grab herself is the murderer!”
We also had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Tsourkas himself about how he first became involved in the camp and his views on getting kids involved in science from an early age. He tells us that when Michele was first putting together camp activities seven years ago, he and Sevile started brainstorming what types of fun workshops they could put together. “We tried to build stories [around the experiments] and make it as fun as possible for the kids. It was a blast to do.” He says they even took advantage of BioRad kits that are developed for high school students and adapted them for the middle school skill set. Fans of Aladdin will enjoy the quippy name of one kit: “Genes in a Bottle”.
Dr. Tsourkas tells us that he really enjoys participating in these types of outreach programs. “Whenever something like that pops up, I usually jump at it—and bring Sevile. He’s very good with these things. I give him a lot of credit.” And he thinks this age group is particularly important to work with. “I feel that it’s really middle school and high school education that could be improved significantly. I think that’s when they make their decisions, in terms of what they want to do. It also sets the stage in terms of their academic performance. I always feel like it’s those early years that set how well they are going to do when they do go to college.”
Dr. Tsourkas also sees several barriers to getting students interested in science. “For girls [without financial or socioeconomic barriers], it’s more of an attitude. They get steered in certain directions or [see] a certain stigma associated with certain careers. So [the goal] is to get them excited enough that this doesn’t deter them. For other under-represented groups, I think it has to do with financial support, such as going to certain schools, their ability to get the resources they need and to maintain focus [on academics]. Which is a little different. It’s not just a barrier of getting excited about science.”
The Tsourkas lab also tries to allow high schoolers to work in the lab when possible. “I feel like it’s really important to train the next generation. Everyone needs to get a chance sometime. You can’t wait for everyone to be a junior or a senior [in college]. Sometimes, you have to be the one to give them their first experiences [in the scientific world]. Everyone has to learn at some point. You don’t just accumulate knowledge out of nowhere.” Furthermore, giving these students the opportunity to get involved in engineering and science from a young age is not only a benefit to the individual student, but to labs, institutions, and society at large. “From my perspective, it’s always important to get the best talent. Whether it’s my lab or the University of Pennsylvania or whatever [institution], it’s important to make sure we get the most talented students. And if we’re losing some of the students because they’re being deterred early on, I think that hurts us down the road.” Dr. Tsourkas also described an observation he has seen in graduate students with whom he has worked. He tells us that, “I think people build up a fear of it [learning completely new skills] as they go along. You see it the most in graduate students. In some cases, I have had graduate students who haven’t yet done wet lab. When they come in as a graduate student and haven’t done wet lab [previously] they are just completely afraid of doing it. They just feel like it’s too big of a barrier to overcome.” He tells us that he has seen the same fear of computational work as well. The further along one goes in their career, the more fear he sees from graduate students and post-docs tasked with learning something new and completely out of their comfort zone. Perhaps early exposure to the various aspects of engineering may help in breaking down these mental barriers.
I feel like it’s really important to train the next generation. Everyone needs to get a chance sometime. You can’t wait for everyone to be a junior or a senior [in college]."
In addition to the bioengineering lab component, Michele described the other workshops in which the girls participate. This includes building projects in the Mechanical Engineering Department, learning about symmetry from the Math Department, making Lego robots, or (the most exciting) making nitrogen ice cream with the Materials Science Department. “They’re in complete disbelief that we are going to let them eat something we just put a chemical in, in their eyes.”
Michele really sums up the overlying goal of the program when she tells us that, “For the most part, everyone has a good experience. We try to make it fun. At the end of the day, they’re not going to remember the actual activities they did. I think the best part is to see them have that light bulb moment in the activity. That, they’ll remember, they’ll remember that sort of feeling. It doesn’t happen for every kid and it doesn’t happen in every session. But you can see it when it happens. You know that they’ll remember that.”
At the end of the day, they’re not going to remember the actual activities they did. I think the best part is to see them have that light bulb moment in the activity. That, they’ll remember."