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High School Tour Shows Girls Why STEM is Fun


East Kentwood High School senior Jada Haynes peeled back the external layers of skin from a dead frog, showing fifth-grade student Lianna Newbeck its insides.

The younger girl, using tweezers, picked up a small organ. “Is this its neck?” she asked.

Senior Anne Dunbar introduces girls to the animals she helps care for at East Kentwood High School
Senior Anne Dunbar introduces girls to the animals she helps care for at East Kentwood High School

“That is the esophagus that goes into the digestive track,” Jada explained, as Lianna and a group of other fifth-grade girls continued eyeing the formaldehyde-soaked amphibian. “When you are dissecting you have to be really careful.

“Do you think you’d want to do this when you get to high school? It’s pretty fun.”

The girls’ reactions to that idea ranged from fascinated to disgusted during their visit to AP biology at East Kentwood High School. It was one of several stops during a tour of classes based in science, engineering, technology and math (STEM).

The girls experienced hands-on chemical and physics experiments, biology with animal specimens and met living snakes, birds and reptiles. They learned about STEM careers and that high-school students, many of whom are preparing for college and careers in science, engineering, technology and math fields, get to delve deep into their studies.

Fifth-grader Samantha Harris works on a chemical reaction with sophomore Maxine Osorio in Accelerated Chemistry class
Fifth-grader Samantha Harris works on a chemical reaction with sophomore Maxine Osorio in Accelerated Chemistry class

Women in STEM Still Underrepresented

The 115 girls are part of the “Girls Only!” STEM program offered for Explorer, Endeavor and Discovery Elementary School fifth-graders. Organized by Nancy McKenzie, the district’s STEM coordinator, girls learn of opportunities in traditionally male-dominated fields. The high-school visit was a followup to an October event when the girls listened to presentations and participated in experiments with female scientists, mathematicians, computer programmers and engineers.

But before they can begin careers, the girls, of course, will take many STEM-related classes. During the fall event, the students showed curiosity and anxiety about high school, McKenzie said.

Senior Paige VanderWall shows fifth-grader Vivian Kolkman a frog and fish dissection
Senior Paige VanderWall shows fifth-grader Vivian Kolkman a frog and fish dissection

“What a perfect opportunity to bring them into the high school, show them STEM classrooms and get a feel for what high school looks like,” she said. “A lot of STEM roles are taken up by men, and women are underrepresented in stem roles. We want to give our girls a look-see, and information to continue on and to spark interest.”

According to a 2013 memo from the Executive Office of President Obama, women represented 24 percent of the STEM workforce in 2009. Women earn on average 33 percent more when they work in those high-growth fields compared to other industries.

In the biology classroom, senior Anne Dunbar invited girls to touch a snake coiled around her arm, one of many animals students raise. She plans to go to college for nursing.

Amaris Russell examines a chemical reaction caused by mixing potassium iodide with lead nitrate
Amaris Russell examines a chemical reaction caused by mixing potassium iodide with lead nitrate

“Hopefully today will motivate them to go into project-based science and continue in the field,” Anne said.

It wasn’t long before curiosity turned into excitement about the classes the girls could someday take. Discovery Elementary student Tenaja Aubrey-Sanders proclaimed: “I’ll be here in five-and-a-half years,” to high school teachers.

“I’m excited about taking AP biology, doing experiments and dissecting things,” said Tenaja, who hopes to become an engineer.

She said she’s learned that no job is just for boys.

“Engineering is for girls,” she said. “You don’t have to be judged. You can be you and do what you want to do.”

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Women in STEM

School News Network Article on first “Girls Only!” STEM Event

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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