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July 9, 2013

At Engineering Institute for Young Women, students see real-world science applications and future possibilities

GE, RPI are again among the sponsors for second year of the camp

A pair of Niskayuna High School science classrooms were transformed into crime labs on Tuesday, July 9, as students participating in the Engineering Institute for Young Women looked for DNA matches, analyzed hair samples, and measured skeletons and blood spatter.

In one room, teachers Jeff Ormsbee and Chris Jennings were leading an activity on DNA against the backdrop of a fictionalized crime scene and a sample that had been recovered as evidence.

"I want to see who did it," said student Julia LeBlanc as her group waited to analyze the results of a DNA test that would match DNA found at the scene with that of four suspects.

"You really feel like you're solving a real crime, even though you know it's fake," said Nicole Salo.

This is the second summer the district is holding the week-long Engineering Institute for Young Women, which seeks to expose female students entering grades 7-9 to opportunities in the inter-related "STEAM" areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Math. The camp has about 60 participants this summer, and is again being held in partnership with GE, RPI, the Northeast Advanced Technological Education Center, and the National Science Foundation. Thanks to the support of the partners, the camp is free for students.

Each day at this year's camp is devoted to a different STEAM area, with a focus on providing a link to exciting, real-world applications. The theme for Tuesday was biotechnology, with students using forensic science for the criminal investigation.

"We are so appreciative of our project partners for making this experience possible for our students," said Niskayuna Science Director Jackie Carrese. "This is a continuation of our efforts to reach out, inspire, and encourage our young women to seek a college or career path in engineering or the sciences. They are getting first-hand exposure to what is really happening in the world, and are seeing that there is a great deal of opportunity in these areas to have an interesting, rewarding career and make a difference."

Carrese said that this year's format of focusing on a different STEAM area and activity is based on feedback from students who attended last year's camp.

On Monday, students built and programmed their own robots. On Wednesday, students will travel to the GE Global Research Center for a special visit that will highlight the contributions of women in engineering and technology, and feature demos in areas such as 3-D printing, robotics, solar, and nanotechnology.

Thursday will focus on the arts, highlighting the visual and creative nature of engineering. Student will learn about 3-D imagery and create anaglyphic photos using special computer software.

Students said they were enjoying the hands-on, interactive nature of the camp. For example, as part of the forensics day, high school science teachers Peggy Varin and Patricia Black led an activity in which students analyzed dental imprints and entered skeletal measurements on a whiteboard as part of the crime scene investigation.

"It's just really cool learning about all of these things," said student Kyra Laing. "I never knew there was a difference between male and female skulls."

Encouraging more women to enter the engineering and science fields is seen by many as a national priority. According to a 2010 report by the American Association of University Women, by graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field, and in some women earn only 20 percent of bachelor's degrees. The report states, "Attracting and retaining more women in the STEM workforce will maximize innovation, creativity, and competitiveness."

Students participating in the Engineering Institute said they were drawn to science and engineering camp that was just for girls. Some said they could see the importance of more women pursuing careers in the fields they were learning about.

"I think women should have the opportunity to do anything they want for their jobs," Jordan McCann said. "And, I think work should be fun."

The Engineering Institute for Young Women is part of a district initiative designed to provide students with exposure to and hands-on experiences in the growing "STEAM" areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Math.