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Scouting For Science

Girls Scouts team up with the New York Academy of Sciences to bring science to middle school Cadettes

by Bethany Halford
December 10, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 50

Credit: Bethany Halford/C&EN
Girl Scout Cadettes use enzymes to make cheese.
This is a photo of Girls Scouts using rennet to make cheese from milk.
Credit: Bethany Halford/C&EN
Girl Scout Cadettes use enzymes to make cheese.

On a Friday evening in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, 30 or so girls—the Cadettes of Girl Scout Troop 2035—gather in the back room of a church basement. There’s no insulation in the windowless room, and the boisterous girls, ages 11 to 13, are filling the room with laughter and chitchat so that it’s almost impossible to hear anything above the din. The room buzzes with such excitement that it’s hard to believe these girls are here to learn about enzymes.

This year, the Girl Scouts of the USA are celebrating their 100th anniversary. And while the organization has never shied away from science and technology—early badges were awarded for aviation and electrical work—enzymes are not its typical fare.

These Cadettes are part of a pilot program the Girls Scouts have developed with the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS). The aim is to bring more science to girls in middle school, explains Stephanie Wortel, education manager at NYAS. “That’s the age when kids stop thinking of themselves as kids and start thinking of themselves as adults,” she says.

The program is an offshoot of an after-school program NYAS began in 2010 with the goal of bringing more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the so-called STEM fields—to underserved students in New York City and Newark, N.J. “One of the crises we saw was a lack of STEM opportunities outside of school time,” Wortel explains.

At the same time, adds Meghan Groome, NYAS’s director of K–12 education, deans and faculty members from local universities were approaching the academy and asking if there was any way the organization could help prepare their graduate students and postdocs to teach. “These two forces collided, and we came up with this after-school STEM mentoring program,” Groome says.

NYAS recruits and trains the graduate student mentors and then places them in the after-school programs for students in fourth through eighth grades. Over the course of a semester, the mentors teach genetics, human body systems, space science, earth science, robotics, or math. “It’s all enrichment; it’s not tutoring,” Groome points out. “It’s meant to be fun, hands-on, and very interactive.” When the mentors complete the program, they earn a teaching credential they can add to their résumé.

Looking for more STEM programming, the Girl Scouts teamed up with NYAS this year to adapt its genetics curriculum to the scouting program. “It was a really natural fit,” Groome notes. “The Girl Scouts are interested in hand-on activities, developing leadership skills, and real-world applications.”

The experimental nature of the NYAS science program, where the students do things like extract DNA from baby food and use enzymes to make cheese and apple juice, is exactly what the Girl Scouts wants its members to experience, says Frank Signorello, STEM education consultant for Girl Scouts of the USA. “The program gives them skills to build confidence and competence,” he says.

Credit: Bethany Halford/C&EN
Cadette leader Bordenave (left) and science mentor Heavner.
This is a photo of troop leader Ashley Bordenave and NYAS graduate student mentor Mary Ellen Heavner.
Credit: Bethany Halford/C&EN
Cadette leader Bordenave (left) and science mentor Heavner.

“A big piece of our program is the role-model relationship between the scientists and the students that they are teaching,” Groome points out. For the Cadettes of Troop 2035, their role model is Mary Ellen Heavner, a biochemistry graduate student at the City University of New York.

On this particular evening, Heavner wears a button that reads, “I am a Scientist. ASK ME HOW!” She is taking the temperature of a thermos of milk while the girls spruce up their new lab notebooks with glitter and feathers. Tonight Heavner and the girls will use the enzyme rennet to transform that milk into cheese.

Heavner says she was looking for a mentoring opportunity and was struck by how well organized NYAS’s after-school program is. After she applied, Wortel recruited her into the Girl Scouts pilot program. “My mother was a Girl Scout leader, but I didn’t really stick with it,” Heavner confesses. This, she says, gives her an opportunity to give back. “There are kids out there who need to be exposed to science and need to think it’s fun too,” she says. “Science can teach you about the things around you, and it can be something you might want to get into as a career option.”

The Girl Scouts pilot program runs for five weeks, and Heavner spends 90 minutes each week preparing for her two-hour meeting with the scouts. That’s not to mention the subway ride, which takes another 90 minutes each way, that Heavner takes between her home in Queens and the troop in Brooklyn.

“It’s a significant time commitment, but I’m hoping to do it again,” Heavner says. “It’s been an absolute blast. The girls are so energetic. When their eyes turn on and they have an answer to a question, it’s really exciting.”

“My girls are really enjoying this program—more than they expected,” says Ashley Bordenave, the Cadettes’ leader. “For most of them, science is one of their least favorite subjects. This program gives them a fresh perspective.”

The girls, Bordenave says, have a new respect for science. “They are learning about and experiencing the inner workings of the human body in a way that would be difficult for schools to spend time doing,” she explains. “For example, the girls constructed a cell from scratch using plastic baggies, gelatin, and different candies representing the organelles. These girls only hear about these different subjects in school, but this program brings the words to life.”

So far, the pilot program has involved only three troops, but NYAS and the Girl Scouts hope to expand it. Wortel thinks that within three years the organizations should be able to roll it out nationwide. “Our program works wherever you have scientists who want to teach and scientists who are interested in giving back,” Groome says. “We know there’s not a shortage of kids who need more science in their lives.”



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