Project Profile: Eureka

March 27, 2009
Testing the orientation of an electromagnet with a small compass. The girls wound the electromagnets and determined how the magnetic strength varied with the number of turns and the battery voltage.

Testing the orientation of an electromagnet with a small compass. The girls wound the electromagnets and determined how the magnetic strength varied with the number of turns and the battery voltage.

“Leading and encouraging a small group of female students in STEM activities has been a dream of mine for a long time,” said Gudrun Hutchins, a 2004–06 Community Action Grant recipient. Gudrun worked for many years as an experimental laboratory physicist mentoring young women at work and occasionally giving presentations about women in math and science fields at high schools and colleges. However, the time constraints restricted Gudrun from being involved at the level she would have liked.

According to Gudrun, her career in science began with encouragement from her father, a physicist: “He told me to ignore all the guidance counselors and teachers who told me that this was not a suitable career for a woman.” Gudrun was the only girl in some of her science classes in the 1950s, and she was the only woman physics major in her graduating class when she received her master’s degree in 1962. Gudrun recognizes that although more women have access to careers in STEM fields today, cultural biases still exist. “I wanted to give young women the same kind of encouragement that my father had given me,” she explained.

Analyzing new and old pennies to see how they differ in composition.

Analyzing new and old pennies to see how they differ in composition.

Gudrun’s dream of creating a small STEM group of women mentees was realized 40 years after she began her successful career working in several research laboratories. In 2003, a consultant for the Bennington County School and Workforce Partnership contacted the AAUW Bennington (VT) Branch looking for grant funding and technical assistance for a project at a local middle school. Gudrun became co-director along with a young chemical engineer named CJ Brownell-Wilkins. “We worked very effectively together, with me preparing most of the experiments and CJ being the magnet and role model for the young women,” said Gudrun.

The weekly program, Eureka, offered 8th and 9th grade girls a balance of science-oriented experiments and field trips. Girls who stayed with the program through 9th grade completed 22 experiments such as making ice cream, examining microcircuits in a dismantled cell phone, testing the acidity of rain water collected in their back yard. Field trips included visits to CAT-TV, the medical and pathology laboratories of the local hospital, a planetarium, and a hands-on science center. “The girls were especially intrigued by our two visits to CAT-TV. The director of the TV studio made arrangements for each girl to spend some time in front of a TV camera, operating a TV camera, and managing and editing the live video feed,” said Gudrun.

Some of the eighth graders from the first year in front of the Montshire science museum in their new Eureka T-shirts.

Some of the eighth graders from the first year in front of the Montshire science museum in their new Eureka T-shirts.

Although the program received less support from the school system in the second year, overall the program was a success. “Nearly all of the students who participated in Eureka for two years took chemistry in their junior year,” explained Gudrun. Additionally, a student who displayed great scientific aptitude throughout the program went on to participate in an artificial intelligence class at the regional technology center. According to Gudrun, however, the biggest success was that “some of the young women developed their own support group for STEM courses and activities.”

In reflecting on the project, Gudrun said one of the most important factors was support from the school system. “The program requires publicity, space for experiments, transportation to field trips, and transportation home after the activities.” For those who may want to start a similar program in their own communities, another consideration is to ensure that experiments are prepared by technically trained men and women. Lastly, Gudrun suggests that at least one of the activity leaders be a woman possessing good rapport with the teens and who serves as a role model in a STEM profession.

Gudrun can serve as a role model for us all, as she was able to realize her dream of mentoring others, just as she was mentored years ago.

By:   |   March 27, 2009

1 Comment

  1. Like Gudrun’s experience, my father, a microbiologist, was the person who encouraged my interest in science the most. With more and more studies confirming the positive effect of role models and fathers’ support, especially, on girls interest in science and tech, programs like Eureka are essential to closing the gender gap in STEM. The good news is that there are already many opportunities out there for people who want to support girls’ interest in these fields.

    If you are looking for programs in your area to volunteer with or support, the National Girls Collaborative Project Program Directory is a great place to start. The database of girl-serving STEM programs can be searched by state, as well as by resources needed such as “volunteers,” “mentoring,” or “tutoring.” The database already includes 38 AAUW branches who put on STEM programs for girls. They are great examples for other branches looking for ideas.

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