Eureka—They’ve Got It!
Encouraging Girls in STEM for a Decade
On a hot July morning in the Franklin Permaculture Garden, a handful of students from high schools in Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee stood in the glorious shade, tasting six teas that had been steeped in large jars as part of an experiential workshop called “DIY Herbal Medicine: Using Plants for Healing.” A workshop leader asked, “Does the taste remind you of anything? Are there any sensations you are experiencing?”
“Organic cherry cough drops!” called Tiffany Hill, a freshman at the Springfield Renaissance School.
“It’s made from what’s sometimes called holy basil,” says Adam Finke ’23, UMass Amherst student garden coordinator, who teaches the workshop with student leaders, and Dan Bensonoff, UMass Amherst sustainability coordinator of campus gardens. He was referring to the highly revered herb used in Ayurvedic medicine. “Tulsi is an adaptogen which helps the body adapt to stress, chills you out.” Which works on a hot day like today, the students agree.
This workshop is among dozens of seminars offered by Eureka!—a partnership program between UMass Amherst and Girls Inc. of the Valley—which is now celebrating 10 years of closing the gender gap for girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Each summer, about 30 rising eighth-graders begin their five-year Eureka! journey, which includes workshops with STEM experts and faculty on the UMass Amherst campus, structured wellness activities, and ongoing skills and knowledge reinforcement throughout the school year. The program partners with several schools, community colleges, and internship sites in Western Massachusetts as well, and offers community-building activities, college visits, and support throughout scholars’ college application process.
A National Science Foundation-funded study is taking a closer look at the program to find out the “whys” and “hows” of Eureka!, with results expected later this year. What’s clear is its record of success, says Suzanne Parker ’87, executive director of Girls Inc. of the Valley. In 2021, every Eureka! student graduated high school on time, according to a Department of Education study. That’s compared to 82% in Springfield and 76% in Holyoke, the two communities where most Eureka! girls live. Moreover, 89% of the program’s graduates are attending college this year, compared with 57% of Springfield graduates and 65% of those in Holyoke.
Eileen Bartley ’81 says it’s the “hands-on experiments” that allow participants to “experience the joys of solving problems in a team setting, just like the real world!” A project engineer with Collins Aerospace in Windsor, Connecticut, and a "2021 Women of Innovation" awardee, Bartley created a scholarship to support Eureka! students enrolling in college-level engineering disciplines. “This experience has had a lasting influence on the girls and opens up the world of STEM to girls in the beautiful and inspiring setting of the UMass Amherst campus,” says Bartley.
Janira Lee Portorreal ’25 was in the seventh grade at Bellamy Middle School in Chicopee when her principal suggested she apply to Eureka! She’s Hispanic, part Dominican and part Puerto Rican, and envisioned herself in college one day. As a Eureka! graduate, Portorreal, 19, is now a UMass sophomore studying health science. Today, she inspires the next generation as a Eureka! facilitator. “It’s super empowering,” says Portorreal. “I never thought of myself as a teacher. I always said, ‘leader, not teacher,’ but the scholars here, they look at me as a teacher and that is so rewarding.”
Portorreal helps lead 11 scholars on a course on sexuality and identity. “It’s everything from ‘who do you like?’ to defining toxic relationships, all kinds of things. It’s an in-depth health class to inform and empower.” In her third year at Eureka! she took a paid externship where she helped dissect breast cancer cells in a laboratory headed by D. Joseph Jerry, UMass professor of veterinary and animal sciences and science director of Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute.
Christine Hatch, UMass faculty liaison for Eureka! and extension associate professor of geosciences, says Eureka!’s mission is to reach students who are “leaving STEM around the eighth grade,” never to return. “What we are doing is providing the intangibles that are automatically given to people who grow up in higher social economic brackets by virtue of the families into which they were born.”
Hatch says, “The idea is to get the exposure, messy, hands-on experience, and boost confidence in STEM areas, and show them they can do well in science and math and can see themselves at the university.” She says it is “going into a room and getting exposure to people who look like you and who are being successful in areas where you didn’t think you could. This is tremendously powerful to outcomes for you as a student.”
It’s clear that students aren’t the only ones who find value in the program, which has seen visits from two state governors and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Plus, UMass instructors have lined up to teach workshops like “The Buzz About Bees” with Lynn Adler, UMass Amherst professor of biology, and “STEAM Power: Sustainable Systems in the Design Building,” with Mark Hamin, UMass senior lecturer of landscape architecture and regional planning. In fact, the program continues to have a waiting list of instructors who want to volunteer.
Visit the Eureka! program’s website to learn more and find ways to get involved.