Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Fieldwork drives girls toward STEM

They found damselflies, leeches and aquatic worms. They measured the oxygen and pH levels in water samples. Some even ventured into mountain streams and onto trails for the first time in their lives. These 20 female students from four middle schools in the Salt Lake Valley participated in WaterGirls, a program to keep girls interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) at a time in their lives when they’re most likely to lose interest.

Girls collect water samples from a creek

The excursion to Big and Little Cottonwood canyons was led by SLCC geosciences Assistant Professor Maura Hahnenberger to teach the girls to conduct hands-on research. She was assisted by volunteer female scientists from SLCC, as well as scientists from the University of Utah and the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. Hahnenberger received a $6,500 innovation grant from iUtah that allowed her to supply transportation, equipment and food for the girls as they visited the canyons.

Maura Hahnenberger

They learned to measure water samples for electrical conductivity and dissolved solids while also collecting and identifying macro-invertebrates found in the streams they visited. “They were really excited about actually taking measurements and understanding what those measurements meant while being out in the environment where so much was going on,” Hahnenberger says.

Life found in a water sample

Hahnenberger and volunteers engaged students in analysis and discussion of their findings before requiring them to make presentations. The plan for this year and next is to expand the program to include afterschool activities that focus on the Jordan River and possibly a river in the desert southwest.

Hahnenberger says females coming out of high school might not be as confident or prepared for a STEM pathway because of institutional bias that sets them up to fall behind early in college, and to choose non-STEM paths. She hopes WaterGirls will help change the course of that academic current.