New Club Aims To Nurture Math, Science In Girls

By Renata Birkenbuel The Montana Standard, Butte.

Creating a homemade, overflowing, bubbling Lava Lamp in a cup sounds like great fun in or out of school.

That's the kind of hands-on scientific experiments the newly formed GEMS club uses to build confidence in girls in grades 5 through 8.

Girls Excelling in Math and Science is a free club outside of school meant to draw in girls from that vulnerable age group when they are most impressionable.

"It's something constructive for girls to do," said Pam Haxby-Cote, a co-founder with Ronda Coguill. "We want to develop young women, and it evolved into a math and science emphasis. That demographic is pivotal."

The first session kicks off Oct. 22 and runs every Wednesday until Nov. 19. At least two more sessions follow after the first of the year, then a Summer GEMS Camp is planned for 2015.

Organizers then hope to do it all over again, depending on interest.

Coguill, Montana GEMS director and a senior scientist materials specialist with CAMP -- the Center for Advance Mineral and Metallurgical Processing -- at Montana Tech, said the structure of GEMS revolves around mentoring and building girls' confidence in math and science.

But it's different than going to school, which is required. The club is voluntary -- and free with transportation available. There's no homework, and parents are encouraged to join in.

"We want to make it fun, easy and exciting, not intimidating," said Coguill, who's drawing upon Tech student mentors, guest scientists and community members willing to share their expertise. "We will do four-to-six experiments each week to expose the girls to the scientific method. We always want them to succeed."

Studies show that girls in that age group tend to hold back or not assert themselves in math or science classes at school when boys are encouraged to be vocal and assertive.

As far back as 1993, some schools across the nation started offering girls-only math and science in hopes of guiding girls to more success in those core subjects.

Previously some public school teachers subtly steered girls away from advanced math to follow traditional female career tracks.

But active after-school clubs like GEMS guides them to purposely learn about math and science basics -- and the careers they can pursue.

A 2010 report by the American Association of University Women points to environmental and social barriers, stereotypes, gender bias, and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities, that continue to block women's progress in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math.

Centered around STEM careers, the club boosts girls' knowledge of what have traditionally been male-dominated careers in those industries.

Influential local leaders like math professor Hilary Risser of Tech serve as consultants to the club.

Coguill has outlined three major goals of the club:

--First of all, to give science fair support to club members entered in any school science fairs before and after the first of the year;

--Offer "a smorgasbord of how fun science can be," Coguill said, in a self-directed curriculum created especially for members;

--Hold a year-end GEMS Summer Camp at the Girl Scouts' Camp Castle Rock Road six miles south of town. The camp is tentatively set for mid-July, 2015.

"We'll conclude it for the year, then take a deep breath and start over," added Coguill. "The second year will have more predictability."

Funded by the Montana Women's Foundation, Blackstone LaunchPad and the STEM Collaborative Project, GEMS eagerly solicits enthusiastic mentors from Society of Women Engineers and Professional Society of Engineers at Tech. Headwaters RC&D in Butte is also a sponsor.

Ultimately, organizers want to feed GEMS participants into CODESPACE-4GIRLS, a manual computer programming workshop run by the Butte Public Library and the "Create Math" music and math camp at Tech.

"We really want to build a sisterhood out of this, a support network for the girls," Coguill said. "What our moms and our generation didn't do."

Teaching practical leadership skills is in the mix, too.

"We want to make sure our full women's network has a full pipeline and the only way to do that is to teach our girls how to be a leader," Coguill added.

An added plus: The club meetings take place at Tech, so club members will be introduced to a college campus -- something that wouldn't otherwise happen to future first-generation college graduates.

"Hopefully, we can make a difference in some of these young girls' lives and they will pay it forward," said Haxby-Cote.

"And vice-versa," added Coguill, noting that she plans to learn from the young girl scientists and mathematicians, as well.

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