Thirteen-year-olds Vivian Lin and Jenny Tan crouched over a tiny plastic container holding a dozen possible specimens of faux smallpox and dripped in clear fluid through a syringe. The girls giggled as they argued over who would get to do the next step in the exercise, designed to simulate how epidemiologists test for infectious diseases.
"Is this what scientists actually do all day?" Vivian asked Sarah Durkin, a U.S. Naval Academy professor overseeing the activity, one of 10 hands-on experiments held Saturday during a workshop intended to interest some 300 middle school-age girls in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Durkin told the teen that she has done similar tests in her career, but on a much larger scale.
At the Girls Only STEM Workshop, girls constructed aquatic habitats, simulated a surgical procedure, and worked on rockets. Fifteen female Naval Academy professors in STEM fields developed the activities, which are similar to what undergraduates are taught at the academy.
"Most of them at middle school age are trying to figure out what they're going to do, and peer pressure can shut doors," said Angela Moran, a mechanical engineering professor who runs the program. "In the last 30 years we have not made significant advances in bringing in women and minorities into engineering fields."
The program has been held multiple times each year since 2009 at the Naval Academy, with some previous sessions overnight. Participation is free, and the program is funded through various grants from sources like the Defense Department and aerospace and defense technology company Northrup Grumman. Naval Academy professors and dozens of midshipmen donate their time.
While the girls participated in hands-on exercises and listened to an afternoon career forum, their parents sat in lectures about the importance of STEM education and college preparation.
In another activity, a group of girls were given graphing calculators — the popular Texas Instruments TI-84 — which were wired on the top of a wheeled robot. Professors had downloaded a computer program onto the calculators so that the girls could program them to move forward or turn. After listening to a set of instructions, the girls took the robots to a series of mazes taped to the floor in the hallway and tried to program the devices to complete the mazes.
"The calibrations in the wheels are hard to make them go straight," said Suzanna Schofield, 13, of Sykesville as she fiddled with the programming on the robot, trying to make it turn less sharply. "But it's cool to know you can make a robot out of a calculator you use in school."
Nana Jeffery, 14, of Northern Virginia said she liked the robots but that she wanted to become a psychologist — like her mom.
The workshop, she said, was "a good idea so it's not all male-dominated careers. Girls can do it, too."
Most of her girlfriends were interested in medical fields, Nana said. "I think it has something to do with what their parents are doing."
During the infectious disease exercise, the girls dripped a series of fluids into their containers, with the final liquid designed to turn blue to indicate the presence of faux smallpox. Most of the containers did turn blue, and the girls then had to investigate which group had spread the disease around the room. Durkin worked Ebola into the discussion, explaining that epidemiologists play a role in something they may have seen on the news.
Vivian and Jenny, who live in Northern Virginia, said they wanted to become doctors to find a cure for cancer.
"I think it's really cool because we actually get to do experiments that scientists do every day of their lives," Vivian said.