Summer of STEM

Posted on September 6, 2016
Dr. Pam Harrison, an Emporia, Kansas, physician, shows Master-It! students how to suture, using pigs feet to simulate human skin.  Photo Credit: Master-It!
Dr. Pam Harrison, an Emporia, Kansas, physician, shows Master-It! students how to suture, using pigs feet to simulate human skin. Photo Credit: Master-It!

Summertime is viewed as an ideal period to engage students in informal settings and to plant seeds of interest in career endeavors, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In this STEM summer program profile, we spoke to Elizabeth “Betsy” Yanik, professor of mathematics, Emporia State University, Kansas, (PAESMEM 2004) about her effort to spark excitement in middle school aged girls about STEM.

They are far from being old enough to attend college. But for a group of 7th and 8th grade girls in Kansas, spending a week exploring science and mathematics-based careers, while experiencing a college lifestyle, is the highlight of their summer vacations.

The girls come from rural areas of Kansas, places where young women have few career choices, despite their “above the national-average” high school graduation rates. In Emporia, Kansas, where Elizabeth “Betsy” Yanik, professor of mathematics at Emporia State University, runs the Master-It! summer program, the median income for women is just above $15,000 per year. Only one in four Emporia residents has an undergraduate college degree.

“Some of these teenage girls have never come into contact with a woman who is a scientist or a mathematics professor, like me,” said Yanik. “When we bring in mentors and guest speakers, some of them have said to me, ‘I didn’t know you could be a scientist in a lab and be a mother and have a real life, too,’” recalls Yanik. “It’s really eye-opening for many of them.” (See Yanik’s video about the impact of female role models in STEM.)

With funding from Emporia State University, Yanik says Master-It! is able to offer the summer science camp experience to families at a reasonable cost. Some campers receive scholarships. She says the program employs best practices of other STEM programs by offering campers workshops with role models and hands-on experiences to show campers the many applications of science and mathematics in the world around them. A recent study in the journal, Research in Science Education, found that middle school-aged girls increase their “STEM identities” after informal science experiences similar to those introduced by Master-It!

Field trips are incorporated into the program, and destinations vary from year to year. “Sometimes we look at the night sky and talk about the speed of light. Or, we’ll go to the Space and Science Museum or visit an archeological site, nearly 30 or 40 miles away,” says Yanik. She says campers routinely visit Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corporation, which is nearby, to learn about the link between chemistry and physics to real-world energy applications.

“Sometimes, we’ll go to a lake on campus and collect samples. There they get water samples and bring them back to look at the organisms under a microscope and classify all of the organisms they see.”

Knowing the number of STEM professional role models in and around Emporia is limited, Yanik casts a wide net to find high-level STEM professionals who will spend time mentoring her campers.

“Now we have a nice database that evolved over time. But in the beginning, we just went by word of mouth. We had several people assisting us who would have a friend at another university. Sometimes we would look for people in [a STEM field] where we were lacking. In our area, we didn’t have many women engineers, so we had to go to places like Wolf Creek and Honeywell over the past six years to find them. And they have been fantastic. They are really faithful about coming and sharing what they do and why they have a passion for it. ”

After 17 years of running Master-It!, Yanik says the presentations by the camper groups at the week finale event demonstrate how indelible even a short experience in STEM exploration can be. “During the presentations, you can see them tugging at their parents with pride and explaining what they did in a workshop or what they learned on a field trip. Just seeing these interactions over and over again and watching their eyes light up, tells me we’ve made a difference.”

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