Girls in STEM: VAMPY Works to Close the Gap

by Erika Solberg

It’s the Friday of the first week of VAMPY, and Physics teacher Kenny Lee is discussing the concept of pressure. First he explains that the smaller the ratio of force to area, the lower the pressure will be. Then, to illustrate the idea, he places onto a chair a wooden frame studded with 189 nails, pointy ends up, and sits down. After he stands, his body free of any new holes, he asks, “Who wants to try it?”

“I call first!” shouts Audrey Thacker of Louisville, waving her hand in the air. The other three students in the class, all boys, express no objections, so Audrey, pony tail bouncing, friendship bracelets circling her wrists, dons a rainbow-colored tie-dyed lab coat and, with the assistance of Kenny and his teaching assistant, Allison Gregory, sits on the pillow of nails. “It’s prickly, but it’s basically my couch,” she announces, smiling. “Cool!”

Audrey is a typical VAMPY student: enthusiastic about learning and making friends. She is one of 37 girls taking a VAMPY class this summer that focuses on science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics — commonly referred to as STEM fields. However, statistically, the chances that a female camper will end up majoring or working in a STEM field are much lower than they are for male campers. According to a U.S. Department of Commerce report from November, 2017, “Women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in 2015 but held only 24 percent of STEM jobs. Likewise, women constitute slightly more than half of college educated workers but make up only 25 percent of college educated STEM workers.” Moreover, “While nearly as many women hold undergraduate degrees as men overall, they make up only about 30 percent of all STEM degree holders. Women make up a disproportionately low share of degree holders in all STEM fields, particularly engineering” (Noonan, 2017).

VAMPY is a perfect place to promote the study of STEM and to combat this gender gap. First, rather than concerning themselves with test scores, VAMPY teachers and students can focus on the concepts that most excite them and explore the newest innovations in the disciplines. In addition, the culture of the camp, because it embraces individuality and the love of learning, encourages girls to study whatever most interests them and assumes that all students can handle whatever challenges they attempt.

VAMPY’s strengths in teaching STEM are apparent in Susan Morgan’s Chemistry class. The five girls and four boys all appreciate the number of labs they get to do, a number that far exceeds what they get during the regular school year. They also appreciate the pace: Nina Pauig of London says, “With a small class that’s smart, you can get ahead on the difficult stuff, while in school we have to wait for the kids who take a while to learn and catch up.”

These students have chosen to study chemistry for a variety of reasons. Ivy Midland of Louisville, who is in the middle of an investigation of what chemicals make up a Bomb Bag, has always been interested in figuring things out. Her eyes behind goggles, she squeezes an unknown liquid into a beaker and explains, “My grandfather is an engineer. He works with televisions, and when I was little he would take them apart, and I really liked to look inside.”

Janna Youngblood of Paducah is interested in viruses. She sees chemistry as a way to achieve her goals and keep her options open: “I need to know chemistry to work with viruses, but also, if I go straight to biomedicine, then I’m stuck to that. I don’t want to have just one subject. I want to know it all.”

The gender gap in STEM fields matters in part because we want students like Ivy and Janna to continue pursuing subjects about which they are passionate. There are two other common reasons for concern as well. The first is economic: because STEM professions in general pay more than non-STEM professions, women are less represented in more lucrative fields. The second reason is tied to innovation: STEM fields require new ways of thinking, and a lack of diversity among STEM professionals makes it more difficult for those new ideas to emerge.

Addressing the gap itself requires innovation because its causes are multiple and complex, as evidenced by the fact that fields such as biology and other life sciences have seen improvements in recent years while others, such as physics and computer science, have not. Catherine Poteet, who teaches Problems You Have Never Solved Before and is a WKU SKyTeach Master Teacher, is involved with programs that expose girls to STEM and encourage their interest. She says, “A lot of times we try to find one reason for complicated problems, but there are lots of things that are adding to the gap. Ogden College and SKyTeach have been very purposeful in having Girls in STEM Days for different groups where we have girls leading those activities. But there is also some new research suggesting girls might believe they can only succeed if girls are leading, so it might be more effective to have males working with girls because that lets girls realize, ‘Okay, if there are boys there, they want me to succeed too.’”

Catherine’s class is a space where both approaches can work; she is leading the class, but her students, who are split between six boys and five girls, work together. For their creative engineering projects, such as an egg drop or mailing a potato chip without it breaking, students start by creating their own designs and then come together in pairs or small teams to reconcile their ideas and troubleshoot as they build. During a second-week project on catapult-building, using objects like craft sticks, paper clips, glue guns, and rubber bands, Carolina Wheeler of Scottsville explains that she and her partner, Thomas Clark of Lexington, “had similar designs when we brainstormed, so we combined ideas.” Now they are working through the building process, making suggestions, asking questions, and listening thoughtfully.

“It might be helpful if we have overlap and have rubber bands here,” Carolina says.

“Okay,” Thomas replies. Later, he points out, “It’d be better if the bands stretch down.”

“Yeah, that sounds good — let’s try that.” Carolina agrees.

Meanwhile, Laurel Wallace of Louisville; Josie Calhoon of Christiansted, U.S. Virgin Islands; and Anna Maddux of Pembroke have made a major change in their initial catapult design. Rather than pulling back on a rubber band to create the energy needed to propel their marshmallow into the air, they are using a popsicle stick. “It snaps back faster,” Josie explains.

When asked why they made the change, Laurel reveals, “We were playing around — I picked up a stick and shot it and hit the ceiling, and that’s how we figured it out.”

The sense of play and interest in building were part of the reason they chose this course. Right now, they are not concerned with the gender gap in STEM fields: they just want to be the ones in the class who catapult a marshmallow the farthest and the most accurately.

Hands-on projects like this one are one of many methods used in VAMPY STEM classes to engage students. In Biomechanics, campers have learned karate and gone rock climbing. In math, each student works his or her own way through a textbook in his or her chosen area, such as geometry or pre-calculus. Teachers and teaching assistants are available to help, and afternoon challenge problems encourage teamwork and healthy competition.

Chemistry, like DNA and Genetics, incorporates a lot of labs. Teacher Melissa Harris knows that a good teacher can make all the difference. She says, “I had a wonderful teacher my senior year in high school for AP biology, and she’s the one who turned me on to science.”

Abbie Knapp of Richmond is definitely turned on to what she is learning: “So far, we’ve gotten to take DNA from strawberries, which was cool. We also saw how genetic diseases can be caused by something as simple as a single nucleotide shift in a gene.”

Classmate Abby Rutledge of Louisville says the class “is really fun. We recently got to use electrophoresis to test DNA found at a pretend crime scene, so that’s definitely cool. Not many people my age get to do that.”

Abby points to one way VAMPY courses feed students’ desire for knowledge: by providing them with opportunities they would not otherwise have. Arden Ensor of Lexington is enjoying Astronomy in part because of these chances. She notes, “We got to hold meteorites that have been in space. Normally, you’d find them in a museum behind glass, but we got to hold them in our hands. So that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” The course has also allowed students to build their own telescopes to bring home when camp ends, visit the planetarium, and study the constellations.

The class also spends time discussing the big issues related to space, such as whether alien life is out there or how the universe might end. On the question of whether multiverses might exist, Mica Mancini of Franklin, TN, comments, “If there are infinite universes, isn’t there a universe where the fundamentals of space are different? Mica, who loves the work of Neil Degrasse Tyson, wants to be an astrophysicist because “I really like how they explain to the public what’s going on in space. I’d like to get involved in public education.”

In Computer Science, the girls in the course bring different levels of experience but are all being immersed in the new possibilities the field offers. Merissa Smalley of College Grove, TN, has some background in computers. She chose the course “because I really like programming, and I definitely want to do something with robotics.”

Olivia Ray of Greenbrier, TN, also has some experience. She comments, “I like coding. I’ve messed around with it before. I’d like to make a game, but that’s a long project.”

Emma Currin of Radcliff had not programmed before VAMPY. She says, “We’ve already been introduced to Python. We’re just now getting into Lisp which is great.” In terms of the gender imbalance in the class — there are 4 girls and 11 boys — she says, “It’s interesting. It’s not entirely bad because the boys get a different perspective from us.

This different point of view is exactly why Physics teacher Kenny Lee cares about the STEM gap. He is doing research on underrepresented groups in STEM fields as part of his dissertation work and is aware that physics lags behind other disciplines. He calls himself, a white man, “the standard issue in physics” and believes the lack of role models plays a role in the gap: “Physics is still so much a white-male dominated thing that minorities and females don’t see a role for themselves — there’s nobody who looks like them to look up to or mentor them. Plus I don’t think universities do a good job of saying that companies need diverse viewpoints, of saying, ‘Hey, not only is there opportunity, but people want you.’ I have one former student who is about to graduate from WKU in physics who is a Native American female, and there are almost none of those in physics, so just putting one member of that group out there is a huge benefit. It’s that different point of view — someone going, ‘Why don’t we do it this way?’”

Physics in particular needs diverse viewpoints because it relies so much on creativity. Kenny explains, “In the upper levels, when you’re dealing with all this theory, you’re using your imagination all the time because you’re playing with what-ifs. What happens if you enter a black hole? What happens if these two particles collide? You have to use your imagination because you first run the experiment in your head to get an idea of what you can do in real life, and then you try it.”

Audrey Thacker, the physics student who sat on the pillow of nails, is a poster child for Kenny’s — and VAMPY’s — approach to STEM. When asked halfway through camp what she has enjoyed in class so far, she rattles off a long list, her face and voice full of animation: “We made an electromagnet like in an electric car. We did an egg drop project, and none of our eggs broke! We spun in a chair to show the point of rotation and center of gravity. We calculated the mass of the sun using gravity. And we shot Nerf guns at things and calculated whether we were going to hit them!” As for using imagination, she describes a recent study hall project: “I had to see how far I can kick a soccer ball and hit the ceiling but without actually kicking a soccer ball — so I had to think about things like how high the ceiling is and how hard I can kick the ball.” When asked why she couldn’t just kick a soccer ball to figure out, she grins: “Well, we didn’t want to hit the sprinkler system.”

SOURCES: Noonan, Ryan (2017). “Women in STEM: 2017 update.” Retrieved from esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/women-in-stem-2017-update.pdf.

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