Eureka! to foster STEM education for girls in Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD — When Adrienne Wootters was a young girl, she didn't think she belonged working in science.

"[And] there was nothing in the curriculum ... that said anything different to me," she said.

But a high school teacher encouraged her to pursue the discipline anyway, and that changed her life.

She went on to earn a Ph.D., and is a physics professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

Wootters shared her experience Thursday at the Gladys Allen Brigham Center in Pittsfield, during the announcement of Eureka!, an all-girls science, technology, engineering and math program in the Berkshires.

Run by Girls Inc. of the Berkshires, the five-year educational program will be launched in January with 20 eighth-grade girls — the first "Eurekans" in the area.

The program will focus on girls who are from low-income families, minorities and those who would be first-generation college students. The eventual goal is to have 100 girls participating — 20 in each grade through senior year in high school.

Participants will be selected through an application process. While the program will primarily focus on Pittsfield students, referrals from other local schools will be considered.

The girls also will be educated in financial literacy and personal development, along with planning for postsecondary education.

It will be based at the Brigham Center in Pittsfield, which is home to Girls Inc.

Brigham Center CEO Kelly Marion said recent studies indicate that the Berkshires need people knowledgeable in STEM.

But many girls in the area from low-income households face barriers to accessing that knowledge.

Eureka! aims to fill that gap with no-cost, year-round STEM programming. Summer programs include paid internships and learning on college campuses.

"This is the day we've been waiting for," Marion said. "It's time here in the Berkshires to bring this opportunity to fruition."

First-year funding will come partially from a $25,000 grant from the Avangrid Foundation and Berkshire Gas Co.

Girls Inc. will soon launch a campaign for the rest of the money needed to fund the program, which costs about $50,000 per year.

"I don't think we'll have a lot of difficulty getting that support," Marion said.

While women receive over half of the bachelor's degrees in the biological sciences, they receive far fewer than men in computer sciences, engineering, physical sciences and mathematics, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project, an organization that aims to increase gender equity in STEM.

These disparities continue into the workforce.

Women make up half the nation's college-educated workforce but only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce.

The program's mission to boost those numbers resonated with several speakers at the event.

"I wish that Eureka! would have been something I could have participated in," said Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer. "I might have been spared taking Pre-Algebra twice."

Over the years, society has developed the idea that women aren't cut out for math and science, said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield. Eureka! will help to change that misconception, she said.

"We, right here, are changing lives because of this effort," she said. "[We're] solving a problem that is well-known."

Nicole Licata Grant, director of the Avangrid Foundation, said she was in a similar program when she was a child growing up in New Haven, Conn.

"It was the first time I met engineers who were women," she said. "It made an enormous difference to me."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@berkshireeagle.com, at @BE_pleboeuf on Twitter and 413-496-6247.


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