'Eureka!' offers new experiment for growing girls' passions for science

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PITTSFIELD — Like kids at other summer camps, the girls in the inaugural "Eureka!" program have made arts and crafts, such as bracelets and necklaces during their four-week session. But look closer, and you'll see something special. Their bracelets have meticulously color-coded patterns, translating a specific strand of DNA. And the tube-shaped pendants they're wearing on beaded necklaces are filled with the DNA of smashed strawberries, which they learned to extract themselves this week.

Taconic High School science teacher Michelle Potash, one of the Eureka! instructors, said the science, technology, engineering and mathematics immersion program has blended staff and guest scientists who are "so interesting, so energizing," with a variety of hands-on projects and field trips, from a study of women in science, to nature walks and kayaking tours.

"Different girls have responded with interest to different activities," she said, "but overall, they're digging in, they're looking at it, they're excited about it."

On Friday, the program concluded with a showcase for program investors and the girls' families, with presentation topics ranging from gravity to genetics.

Asked why her group chose to present on gravity, Gracie Samrith said it was a matter of fact: "Without gravity, we'd be everywhere, floating in space."

A solid start

After some research into the national program, Girls Inc. of the Berkshires announced grant seed funding for a local Eureka! intiative back in November. It is designed as a five-year, STEM-based program for girls that consists of a four-week summer camp followed by monthly meetings throughout the school year for team building, speakers, field trips and more. There will be another four-week camp-style program next summer, followed by paid internships with STEM-related companies during the third summer.

First-year funding has been partially furnished from a $25,000 grant from the Avangrid Foundation, and Berkshire Gas Co. Girls Inc. is planning to launch a campaign to raise the rest of the money needed for the program, which costs about $50,000 per year. Other supporters of the program include Cranwell Resort & Spa through the Hyatt Thrives Community Grants program, as well as Berkshire Community College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

The inaugural program officially launched this July with the camp program and 14 rising eighth-grade girls enrolled at no cost by program coordinator Sidney Hamilton, the outreach and site coordinator for Girls Inc. Sponsors hope to enroll more girls each year.

"I think this age group can get left out sometimes, but it's where [support] is needed the most," Hamilton said.

Building skills

To begin their journey, this summer's science themes focused on biology and physics in particular, but included explorations of botany, chemistry and earth sciences. Pioneering Eureka! member, Rebecca Kratka said, "I like all kinds of science," and said the program works for her because, "it teaches you about STEM, and it's fun at the same time."

"I've always wanted to grow in those subjects because it gives you a better chance at getting a job when you're older," said Hannah Manzolini.

Most of the girls in their session group go to Reid Middle School, and they said they will bring their new and common experiences with them when they go back in the fall. They'll also bring with them new friendships.

Manzolini said she's connected with fellow students with whom she didn't talk much previously. She and classmate Taibat Ahmed now have the common experience of going kayaking for the first time on Onota Lake.

"I would definitely do it again," Ahmed said. "It was really fun."

Manzolini agreed, noting she's already begged her parents to get a kayak of their own.

Amberly Garcia said the group work has been meaningful to her. "One of the reasons I signed up is because I needed help increasing my team skills and to learn how to better work in a group," she said.

Overcoming sexism

Asked if they felt it was important to have a STEM program just for girls, they replied with a collectively resounding, "Definitely."

"Girls might be scared to go into science because of sexism and stuff," Garcia said.

"When you look at TV and toys, the women characters are always at home cooking. That's really stupid," Kratka said.

During the program, the girls studied the struggles and successes of women in STEM: from 20th-century chemist Rosalind Franklin, who was integral to discovering the twisted ladder structure of DNA, to the ancient Egyptian astronomer and mathematician Hypatia, brutally slain by Christian zealots who considered her female intellectual pursuits as dangerous to their belief system.

Instead of feeling intimidated by the gender gaps in STEM fields, the Eureka! girls said they feel "more determined" to be successful.

While not all the participants said they were comfortable with the idea of a five-year commitment to the program, Hamilton said she's hoping the experiences that Eureka! provides will be motivating.

"We want them to succeed," she said. "I think they're starting to see the reality of that now, and they made the commitment with the understanding that they're going to get a lot out of it."


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