High Tech’s Snacks With Scientists Inspires Students

November 3, 2017
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By Jennifer Driscoll |

Two middle school students inspected a tank containing snails and hermit crabs during the wildlife biology lesson at Snack with Scientists, a program at High Technology High School which encourages girls to pursue STEM careers.

The girls stared intently, watching the snails and crabs crawl around in the tank. As time went on, they shot their hands up in the air: “How do tsunamis form?” one asked. “I did a report on horseshoe crabs once!” said another. “One time I saw a starfish with nine arms. Do you know what that is?”

For Diana Burich, who works at the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, educating students on wildlife biology is a fun adventure every day. Burich was one of the mentors volunteering at High Technology High School’s “Snacks with Scientists” event on Friday, Oct. 20.

Run by members of High Tech’s National Honor Society, the event is a community outreach program which connects fifth- and sixth-grade girls in Monmouth County with local female scientists. The students who attended the program rotated through different classrooms to chat with women who work in a variety of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

The event is designed to encourage young girls to explore STEM fields and pursue careers in those fields in the future. The program was created in response to the disparity between the number of men and women working in these areas. According to the National Science Foundation, women held only 29 percent of science and engineering occupations in 2013, despite accounting for half of the U.S. college-educated workforce. The event’s organizers believe girls will be able to envision themselves in a STEM career more easily if they see successful female examples.

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Patricia McCrink, an industrial engineering and operations researcher, participated as a mentor for Snacks with Scientists last October. She is passionate about encouraging young people to consider careers in STEM, and said last year the excitement in the room was palpable. “Our country desperately needs more students to pursue technical studies; we need all the talent, not limited by gender, race or economic background,” she said.

Sirena Hsieh, DMD, an orthodontist who works at Central Jersey Orthodontics, spoke with a group of fifth- and sixth-grade girls at the Snacks with Scientists event to help spark their interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

Elaine Stryker, an electrical engineer, attended Snacks with Scientists for the first time this year. Stryker has been motivated to encourage girls in math, science and engineering since her days as a graduate student, when she helped with math and science lessons in a sixth-grade classroom in West Philadelphia. Stryker was excited to participate in the event because she said she wants to help young women recognize these fields are for anyone, regardless of gender.

Snacks with Scientists began two years ago, after a group of High Tech students attended an event at the American Association for the Advancement of Science where they had the opportunity to speak with various scientists. Finding the experience invaluable, they wanted to replicate the event to give younger students the same opportunity. After doing some research, the group learned that fifth or sixth grade is often the point when young girls lose interest in STEM, and decided to target that group by creating the Snacks with Scientists program.

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Rachel Kenny, a High Tech student who helped organize the event this year, said she found it to be empowering and the girls seemed to be very engaged by what they were learning. “It was very rewarding to see so many girls here interacting with successful women and exploring STEM fields. We really hope experiences like this will inspire them to consider pursuing careers in STEM in the future,” she said.

Kenny’s hope seemed to be realized for a number of girls in attendance. Among them was Lola MacRae, 10, who attends Maple Place Middle School in Oceanport. She said she most enjoyed speaking with a mentor who was a physician. “I want to grow up to be a cardiologist,” MacRae said.

Lily Flor, also 10 and from Maple Place Middle School, said her favorite scientist was Burich, the wildlife biology educator. “I love the beach and I love sea animals. I really liked seeing the animals she brought,” Flor said.

Judging by the animated looks on the girls’ faces as they exited the event, she was not alone in her excitement.

This article was first published in the Oct. 26-Nov. 2, 2017 print edition of the Two River Times.

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