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At Science Club for Girls, confidence a key element

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. She has contributed regularly since 2009 to the Bay State Banner, and since 2016 to VIEW BIO
At Science Club for Girls, confidence a key element
Venessa Peña (left), a medical student at Harvard University, helps young Science Club for Girls participants make a chart of heart rates before and after jumping jacks at the year-end science fest at Amigos School in Cambridge. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Author: Sandra LarsonVenessa Peña (left), a medical student at Harvard University, helps young Science Club for Girls participants make a chart of heart rates before and after jumping jacks at the year-end science fest at Amigos School in Cambridge.

Author: Sandra LarsonVenessa Peña (left), a medical student at Harvard University, helps young Science Club for Girls participants make a chart of heart rates before and after jumping jacks at the year-end science fest at Amigos School in Cambridge.

The school day is over at Roxbury’s Tobin School, but little girls are busy with science experiments.

On a spring afternoon, a group of kindergarteners and first-graders gather around a table with volunteer Jamie Madrigan, a graduate student in epidemiology and environmental health at Harvard School of Public Health. They’re going to learn about viscosity, and see how detergent causes oils to break up and disperse. But Madrigan puts it in less lofty terms.

“We’re going to have some fun with milk and glue and colors today,” she says. “It’s going to look like a firework.” The girls squeal in excitement.

The all-girl science group is part of the Science Club for Girls, a Cambridge-based nonprofit whose aim is to increase science knowledge and self-confidence in girls from different racial, ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds. The organization is celebrating its 15th year, and served over 600 children this year.

In the next room, a dozen second- and third-graders are talking about recycling.

“Raise your hand if you recycle at home,” says Karen O’Neill, an engineer pursuing a master’s degree in education at Boston University.

Hands shoot up.

“I recycle cans,” one girl says. Others chime in: “I recycle paper,” “I recycle water bottles!”

O’Neill responds with questions: What are water bottles made of? Where does the stuff go after the truck takes it away? They discuss how paper might be made into new paper, and how rubber tires can become mulch.

Girls ranging from kindergarten through seventh grade do hands-on science activities in after-school or Saturday clubs led by “mentor-scientists” who are professionals or students in science and engineering fields.

Girls in upper grades participate in other ways. They can work as Junior Assistants (JAs), helping to lead younger girls in science club experiments. They can also learn video editing on the Media Team, or build rockets and compete on an all-girl Rocket Team, led by graduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The first Boston club started in fall of 2007, and clubs now operate at the Tobin K-8 School, Gavin Middle School in South Boston and Rogers Middle School in Hyde Park.

The recycling discussion at Tobin is followed by a game. The girls count off and form two teams. The goal is to pick up items from a large bin and walk — not run — to the front of the room, dropping each item into the proper bin for paper, containers or non-recyclable items.

A girl named Delores claps her hands in excitement while waiting her turn; Kathy does a little tap dance. The girls’ heads form a shifting tapestry of long black hair, fluffy ponytails, intricate braids, pink clips and white or brightly colored beads.

After a fierce contest, the teams finish the task at exactly the same time.

“It’s a tie!” says a group leader, as the girls let out ecstatic cheers. “Congratulations, you all won!”

Such teamwork and positive reinforcement are integral parts of the Science Club.

“This is not just about science education — it’s about getting girls to develop confidence in making observations, defending their conclusions, supporting each other,” says Dr. Connie Chow, the organization’s executive director.

Boosting girls’ confidence is as important as teaching them science, and may even be a prerequisite, explains Chow, a scientist and former Simmons College biology professor.

 “If the girls do not feel safe, the neurons for learning don’t fire,” she says. “If [they] are not centered and able to see a future, then science encouragement won’t make a difference.”

The day after the little girls at Tobin School play recycling games, two seventh-graders named Miranda and Avianna peer at a scale in a science lab at Amigos School in Cambridge. They are learning how food produces energy in the form of calories.

For these older girls, it’s all science today. Their mentor-scientist is Gurtina Besla, a Ph.D. candidate in astrophysics at Harvard. She leads them through an experiment that involves carefully weighing peanuts and then burning them, heating water in the process, and doing the math afterward to calculate the number of calories per gram.

Besla, 27, has been volunteering with Science Club for four years, and has watched these girls rise from elementary to middle school.

“The most important role of the mentors is to continuously remind them, ‘This is actually science. This is the kind of work you would be doing,’” she says. “If [you’re] reminding them of that, they can connect the fun and the future.”

All Science Club programs are free. The organization is funded by grants and donations, and relies on volunteer scientists and science students to lead the experiments, while a small staff of coordinators oversees club and youth development activities.

Forty percent of the girls they serve are black (both African American and African), about 25 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Caucasian and about one-tenth Asian, with the rest multiracial, according to Chow.

Two weeks after Avianna and Miranda burn peanuts to learn how the body gets energy from food, their group is on a field trip to a local Food and Drug Administration lab. At the Amigos School, the other science clubs are having an end-of-year science fest. Lots of girls and a few parents roam from table to table in the large school cafeteria, getting a glimpse of what each club studied this year.

Avianna’s mother, Josefa Perez, is at the fest with her younger daughter, Zian, a Science Club participant for the past three years.

“It’s very fun,” says Zian, whose fourth grade club built bridges and domes. “We do learn stuff.”

Perez says the clubs have made her daughters more confident. She agrees with Zian that the clubs combine science and fun.

“Everyone is so knowledgeable about their craft, and they show them a fun way to do it,” she says.

Julie Viens, whose daughter, Shayla, is in the kindergarten club at Amigos, describes the club’s approach as a “hands-on, ‘go where your questions go’ kind of learning.”

“I don’t have to quiz her — she always tells me what they did in Science Club,” Viens adds.

Some of the girls who have come through Science Club in the past 15 years have chosen to pursue science, others have not. But 100 percent of their “graduates” have gone on to college, the organization says.

Vassia Vaneus, 19, has just finished up her freshman year in nursing at Regis College. She credits the JA program with solidifying her career plans.

“What helped me was the lesson [the JA leadership workshop] we would have after science club, where we would have a guest speaker,” Vaneus says. “It helped me confirm what I wanted to do.”

Louisa Irele, 19, another Science Club alumna, says she was inspired by the teamwork and effectiveness of the clubs.

“When I think of a group of girls getting together, I don’t think of it as productive — it’s just getting together to be girls,” Irele says. “But [in Science Club] everyone’s there, helping each other, supporting each other — and at the end, something comes out of it.”

Now majoring in writing, literature and publishing at Emerson College, Irele says the leadership experience as a JA showed her she could be a teacher, which is now her goal.

While not every girl will want to pursue science or technology, Chow says it’s important to open their eyes to the options, as science literacy is crucial to solving and understanding the big problems the world faces, such as climate change, water shortages and energy security.

“Eighty percent of the fastest growing jobs in the near future will depend on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields,” and all people should be given the opportunity to be involved, she asserts.

“If [the girls] have considered and not outright rejected a career in science or engineering, if they have made a choice knowing the steps they would need to take, and if they know how to build their own network of support — then we have been successful,” Chow says.

If internalizing the lessons is one of the goals of Science Club for Girls, little Kathy at the Tobin School is a good model. When her club created an art project relating to their semester’s work, Kathy painted a colorful sign that she says she’s going to hang on her door at home.

The sign’s message? “Recycle is my job!”