Chemistry Professor receives grant for chemistry camp

Hoping to create a generation of female scientists, URI for 40 middle school girls from R.I.

KINGSTON, R.I., Dec. 17, 2012 – Abundant research confirms that girls start losing interest in science during middle school or earlier and the result is a dearth of women working in science, technology, engineering, and math. In 2009, only 24 percent of scientists and engineers were women, according to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey. *

A new weeklong chemistry camp for 40 middle school girls will be held at the University of Rhode Island’s Kingston campus during the April public school vacation in 2013 and 2014. The camp is the brainchild of URI Assistant Professor of Chemistry Mindy Levine, who hopes to ignite a passion for science in girls at a crucial age and change this trend. She has packed the camp with hands-on experiments using real-world objects, female scientists in a variety of interesting careers as guest speakers, and a field trip to the Boston Museum of Science.

“I want these girls to come out of this camp thinking that science is cool and that women can become scientists,” said Levine, who grew up thinking she would become a physician like her father until she realized she didn’t want to diagnose and treat patients; she wanted to create the treatment. “I love science. If I think of an idea today, I can be researching it tomorrow. I’m curious naturally and, to me, that’s what science is all about. It’s an established framework to explore curiosity.”

Levine has created an exciting framework for the camp, which has been funded for two years with a $15,000 award from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Special Grant Program in the Chemical Sciences. Each camp day starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m., and features a specific scientific focus, including: polymers; non-Newtonian fluids; acids and bases; and the chemistry of explosives. On the chemistry of explosives day, students will make sparklers using common lab chemicals and observe how to explode gummy bears with potassium chlorate. The guest speaker will be URI Chemistry Professor Jimmie Oxley, who directs URI’s Center of Excellence in Explosives. Her recent work on training aids for bomb-sniffing dogs is helping New York Transit Police fight terrorism.

Levine, who resides in Sharon, Mass., with her husband and children, has an extensive network of female scientist colleagues who have signed up to meet and speak with the students. Female role models are critical when statistics show 75 percent of elementary school girls and 82 percent of boys report they like science. But by the time they reach high school, only 29 percent of girls report they’d enjoy being scientists compare to 52 percent of boys.

“I want to expose these students to female scientists in diverse careers to help combat the implicit stereotype that girls are not good at science,” Levine said. “When I wrote the proposal for the camp, Rhode Island had the highest unemployment rate in the country. Camps like this and other initiatives are crucial to our state and our students. I want these girls to see that an advanced degree in science can lead to a number of fascinating career paths.”

For example, Jaclyn Catalano Anderson, a scientist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will speak on the camp day devoted to acids and bases about the chemistry between the lead pigments and oils in paintings. The camp realizes recommendations from the American Association of University Women that girls (and boys) be exposed to female role models in science careers and overall recommendations for hands-on experiments for students to learn about science and technology.

Student recruitment will focus on two key geographic areas based on proximity and need: the South Kingstown School District and the Providence School District. Students will be able to commute via public bus.

The camp is sustainable beyond the two years the grant provides for and Levine is confident it will garner funding from other science organizations. There will be short-term evaluations immediately after the camp and long-term evaluations for tracking students as they choose colleges, majors, and careers. Levine is hoping the camp changes some of the stereotypes she hears all too often about scientists.

“People have told me that they don’t want to be a scientist because they’re too social or they could never stay in a lab all day.” Levine said. “They need to know that scientists are not just old men who wear white lab coats and stay in a lab all day!”

*The U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration. Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation.