staff, staff, January 16, 2015

It?s an antiquated notion: Young boys should play with slingshots, bottle rockets, telescopes and other things that prepare them for an adulthood spent thinking, tinkering and experimenting, while girls should play with dolls, E-Z Bake ovens and similar toys that get them ready for a lifetime of domestic service.

The University of Iowa is doing its part to do away with that kind of outmoded thinking through a program that provides girls ranging from pre-school to middle school ages with fun, engaging introductions into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Addressing a lack of female involvement in STEM pursuits, University of Iowa Health Care has created Girls Go STEM. In this program, faculty, staff and students speak to girls in the Iowa City area about considering scientific pursuits when they try to decide the direction of their careers and lives.

According to Jackie Kleppe Williams, manager of community and STEM education programs for the University of Iowa Health Care, the idea is to plant a seed rather than pull girls kicking and screaming down this academic path.

?We try to get to them when they are young, even in preschool,? Williams said. ?The younger you can get kids excited about STEM, the more likely they are to continue on with it. I know by junior high the interest drops down, and by high school it drops down even more.?

As part of its education and outreach aims, Girls Go STEM brings its programs to the students at area schools and also invites groups in for special presentations. The program has sponsored mini-medical schools for middle school girls, showing them what doctors and nurses go through in order to reach their career goals and how medical discoveries are made.

At a recent event, Girls Go STEM showed a class of sixth-graders from Davenport, Iowa, how minimally invasive surgery works, having them search for incisions with the use of a laparoscopic needle in a re-creation of a laboratory procedure.

Additionally, community organizations - Girl Scout troops, for instance - put in requests to have Girls Go STEM introduce young girls to concepts in these areas. And Williams said the programs they deliver are often customized to the needs of those organizations.

?When we have groups come in, we ask them what they want to get out of the program,? she said.

All told, more than 14,000 students have been impacted by Girls Go STEM?s offerings in the past three years. The next step is to find a way to maintain a relationship with the young girls who are first introduced to the sciences. Williams said she is working with the school of medicine to find a way to build a long-term relationship that ?continues the fire within the students.?


Girls Go STEM?s programs are conducted by Iowa undergrad and graduate students, and for the most part, they?re done on a volunteer basis. The program allows student volunteers to earn college credit. Because it?s operated by the Iowa Health Care department, many of the students involved are from the medical departments, although Williams said a not-insignificant number of participants major in science, engineering and education, and the organization also attracts minority students from a broad range of fields.

Jessica Hastie, a University of Iowa biosciences graduate student from Centreville, Va., is an enthusiastic participant in the Girls Go STEM program.

?My favorite part of volunteering for these events is that I have an excuse to do fun experiments, and I [get to see] the ?Cool!? or ?Eww? expression when kids realize how sickness is a part of their daily lives,? Hastie said.

?I think it is extremely important to expose girls to different fields within STEM programs,? she added. ?Unless you have a parent or relative in a particular career, it is hard to know what that career does, or that it even exists. The hands-on activities provided offer a glimpse into these careers, and hopefully spark an interest so that they will seek out more information.?