Environmental Health Sciences faculty members inspire girls to pursue STEM learning

August 8, 2014

Environmental Health Sciences faculty members Rick Pilsner and Ezra Wood hosted a pair of summer workshops for middle school girls as part of the Eureka! Program. The hands-on, lab-based activities were designed to inspire young girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning.

Left: Participants display test tube samples from Pilsner's workshop. Right: Participants react to Wood's dry ice experiments.

The Eureka! Program, which recently completed the second year of a partnership between UMass Amherst and Girls Inc. of Holyoke, is aimed at addressing the gender gap in STEM fields. The 5-year program recruits rising 8th grade girls and supports their educational aspirations through high school by exposing them to college-level STEM courses, sports and personal development. By focusing on girls who are at high risk of losing interest in STEM coursework, and utilizing a series of “I can do it!” hands-on workshops along with active mentorship, Eureka!’s holistic approach builds confidence in STEM and a college future.

As part of this year’s program, Pilsner led a DNA-based lab activity designed to show participants how they could isolate DNA from their cells. The young girls used a sports drink mouth wash to obtain a sample of buccal (or mouth) cells. The cells were then isolated using a centrifuge, lysed to break them apart, and treated with an enzyme to break down any remaining proteins. Finally, the participants added isopropanol and watched as their DNA precipitated out of the solution. Pilsner’s workshop was conducted in and partially supported by the SPHHS Teaching Laboratory.

“UMass has provided me with access to a wealth of scientific resources and tools and it seems logical to share these with the surrounding community, especially in order to inspire future generations of scientists,” says Pilsner. “And selfishly, of course, I loved being able to see the students’ excitement when they see their own DNA for the first time. It grounds me and reminds me why I became a scientist.”

Wood conducted a workshop on carbon dioxide (CO2) emission titled “Carbon Dioxide - Where is it?”. Using a real-time CO2 sensor, the girls measured carbon dioxide in their breath, in indoor and outdoor air, and near dry ice. Wood also led discussions on phase transitions and used dry ice as part of their hands-on activities.

“Dry ice is fun!” remarks Wood. “I always enjoyed foggy dry ice experiments when I was a kid, and thought it would be an easy and fun way to instill excitement in science. Those two hours of hands-on activities will contribute to their overall summer Eureka experience, which will undoubtedly have a positive impact on their futures.”

“The workshops were a huge hit with our girls,” comments Leah Uberseder, Special Projects & Volunteer Manager with Girls Inc. of Holyoke. “Between the two workshops, the SPHHS served roughly 50% of the Eureka! Scholars this summer.”

“The program will be even bigger next summer,” says Wood, “so more faculty will be needed!”

View a photo slideshow from the workshops below.