Girls STEM club at Evergreen Middle School brings local scientist
When asked how many people love science, every student in the Evergreen Middle School girls STEM career club raised their hands.
Dr. Mary Zelinski, a researcher at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, asked the question to an after-school club of about 20 students before teaching a lab about cryopreservation — the process of using very low temperatures to preserve living cells.
All of the Hillsboro School District's middle schools, as well as Groner K-8 School, have clubs like the one at Evergreen, thanks to grant funding from the Intel Foundation.
From October to April, the clubs bring in local female professionals working in STEM fields to teach girls about subjects like computer programming, gene therapy and mechanical engineering, among others.
With most fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics dominated by men, the clubs strive to expose girls at a young age to the work of leading women and inspire them to explore going into a STEM field. Program coordinators said they also try to bring girls of color, who are even less represented in STEM fields.
With so much fighting for teenagers' attention after school and a culture that historically hasn't promoted women in STEM, it isn't easy to sign girls up and keep them, coordinators said.
But when Zelinski started asking the girls what their favorite animals were and that her work could help the preservation of endangered species, the students fully engaged.
"This is Shiver. He was the first rhesus monkey born at our primate center from a frozen, thawed embryo," Zelinski said with a photo of the monkey projected behind her. "He was not endangered, but this is a way that is also used in human clinics to help moms and dads who might be infertile or having trouble having a baby."
The Saturday before Zelinski's session, students from the districtwide club took a field trip to the research center and toured the facility meeting other researchers and meeting monkeys.
During the session the following Tuesday, Oct. 29, students did a lab in which they tested the process of vitrification — a new technique of rapidly cooling cells and organs to cryopreserve them.
They filled test tubes with water and different concentrations of glycerol and then dipped the test tubes into liquid nitrogen to vitrify the solution. Afterward, they inspected the test tubes to see if ice formed — the enemy of cryopreservation, because ice ruptures cells as it expands.
Zelinski tried to ensure every student participated.
"Who wants to read? Someone who hasn't read yet," she said.
Although students had no trouble with the steps of the lab, its concepts were advanced. Most of the students said they hadn't been taught about cells.
But that only seemed to spur more questions at the end. Zelinski fielded multiple questions about how cryopreservation can help cancer survivors have children. Students were particularly curious about how and why cryopreserved ovarian cells would be transplanted under a woman's arm to start the production of eggs.
Zelinski said she never had people telling her she could go into biomedical research when she was in school.
"There were no women in science that I was ever exposed to," she said. "That's why I love doing this. When I went to graduate school and finally met an actual woman scientist, I got the bug. One of my missions ever since was to be able to provide these opportunities for girls so they could build their confidence and be exposed to all the different interesting things there are to do."
Amy Haberman, the club's coordinator and a seventh-grade science teacher at Evergreen, shares the same mission.
She said getting girls to be interested in technology fields is difficult, which she said is frustrating because there are so many technology industries in the district. Haberman scheduled three computer science sessions this year.
"I have a hard time getting the girls excited about computer science — programming and coding," she said. "Unless they already have grown up with it, or their dad is an engineer, or they have some reference to it, it's such a hard sell. But if you say anything about the health fields, they're in."
It's difficult to cultivate interest in certain fields, but Haberman said it also isn't easy to get girls to sign up and stay the whole year, especially girls she knows come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
She said it's important to identify students' personal interests and tell them the club is an opportunity to learn more about the subject or actually do it.
"It's a personal invitation, or I'll have a girl and I'll say bring a friend," Haberman said. "That takes away that scary feeling of, 'I don't know anybody here.'"
Being a teacher these days is exhausting, Haberman said. Teachers in Hillsboro have been managing growing class sizes for years.
"This is the fun stuff," she said. "This is what's making me energized."
Her having fun is rubbing off on the students. After the session, an excited girl who wasn't in the session came into the doorway of the classroom and started waving at Haberman.
Haberman hopes girls use the sessions to take science classes in high school and college. She said she has heard from former students who currently work in STEM fields, but she'd like to start collecting data about the outcomes too.
Taylor Huntington, an eighth-grader who went to the session, was one of the students raising her hand to answer questions throughout the lab. She said Haberman played a big role in getting her to participate.
She isn't sure whether she'll go into a science field.
"I kind of do want to become a musician," Huntington said. "I'm not sure if I'm going to go into the science fields, but I want to have all these resources and knowledge."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.