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Girls STEM Camp Bridges Science Gap

Girls in grades 6 through 8 explored science careers during a July 6-10 STEM camp at Minnesota State Mankato.

Jessica Bies, Mankato Free Press, 7-8-2015

It’s the delicate balance between life and death, birth and decay, oxygen and carbon dioxide, that can’t help but fascinate eighth-grader Cecelia Anderson.

Ecosystems are precise, she recently found out.

“If one thing wasn’t there, things would fall apart,” she said, peering at the glass mason jar on the table in front off her. In it, swirled a swampy-looking mixture of pond scum and weeds.

“Science is one of my favorite things,” Anderson said. “I just like to learn about how each of the organisms effect each other in different ways.”

She paused, then “It’s just cool!” she exclaimed.

That’s exactly the reaction Minnesota State University, Mankato’s Women Center was looking for. A recent recipient of a $10,000 grant from Regenerative Medicine Minnesota, it is holding a five-day girls-only STEM this week, for students in grades six through eight.

“We know through our work at the Women’s Center that there’s a gap in young girls who are interested in science,” said Jessica Flatequal, director of Gender and Sexuality Programs at Minnesota State Mankato. “And there’s just this drop off that happens when they get into middle school. Which is why this is such an important age group to target.”

Girls Explore STEM Camp, as the name suggests, is dedicated to encouraging girls to explore science, technology, math and engineering.

Not only have women seen no employment growth in STEM jobs since 2000, a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce report found only one in seven engineers is female. Though many girls may dream of going into STEM, they find themselves deterred, Flatequal said.

“I think some of it might be related to self-confidence,” she said. “Many young girls are told they’re not good at science ...”

Some are told their male counterparts are just “better.” As a result, they never find out just how interesting STEM can be.

“We want to make science cool,” Flatequal said.

Many of the 26 girls enrolled in the camp were already halfway there Monday, thanks in large part to Minnesota State Mankato biology professor David Sharlin. He gave them each a sample of pond water taken from Rasmussen Woods and let them look at it under microscopes. They found tiny, little microorganisms and fish living in the water, as well different plants.

Afterward, they used a mason jar to create their own tabletop biospheres. They filled them with duck weed, slugs, shrimp, hornwort and diluted pond water.

The project tied back to the camp’s theme of regeneration.

“It’s a regenerative system,” Sharlin said. “It’s a closed container that’s going to self regenerate ... when they close it off, there’s no more oxygen. The plants make their own oxygen and the animals breathe it and release carbon monoxide for the plants.”

Later this week, the girls will go hunting for worms in Rasmussen Woods so they can cut them in half and see first-hand how they grow back their heads and tails. They’ll also get to build Lego robots, extract a sample of their own DNA, use 3D printers, do computer coding and talk with various woman scientists.

As of Monday, Kendall Grund, a sixth-grader from Dakota Meadows Middle School, was looking forward to it all. Her father works for the DNR, so she especially enjoyed Sharlin’s biology lesson and making her own biosphere.

“Science is just really interesting to me,” she said. “It always has been ... I kind of want to be a doctor one day, because it also involves technology.”

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at

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