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Middle School Girls Geek Out On Science At UT-Dallas

About half of the U.S workforce is female, but only 1 in 4 jobs in STEM fields go to women. We checked out a summer camp at the University of Texas at Dallas that aims to get girls excited about science, technology, engineering and math.

Inside a cramped university laboratory, a group of middle school girls dressed in white lab coats squeeze in to watch some scientists at work. Today, they’re learning about something called carbon nanotubes.

“It’s the energy of the future, we are calling it,” scientist Zharkynay Christian tells the girls. “It’s very cheap. Right? So nobody paying for solar energy. Right? Sun coming and going, so we are using that nature opportunity to make solar energy.”

The girls looks intrigued. One of them asks the inevitable question.

“What made you want to become a scientist?” she asks.

“I was little girl when I was playing with just aluminum wires and I was always thinking what it has inside,” says Christian. “And I was always curious to see what it has inside. I wanted to see structure of it.”

She finally got her wish – in college. The turning point was the day a professor in her native Kazakhstan gave her a piece of metal. He told her to clean it and look at it under a microscope. The professor’s nearly 90 now. She thanked him during her last trip back home. Her message to the girls:

“I think if you find your way in your life,” she tells them. “I think you’re going to be happiest girl in the world.”

Most of these girls have never met a scientist, much less a female one. They’re all part of a two-week Girls Inc. camp for girls entering the eighth grade. The goal? Get girls thinking about STEM-related careers and college. Seventy percent of the girls come from families who make less than $30,000 dollars a year, and many live in single-parent homes.

“We want them to see women that are in careers perhaps that they have never even thought about or didn’t even know existed and we want them to be exposed to subject areas that perhaps they haven’t heard of,” says Brenda Raine, chief program officer for Girls Inc. “And you could see the excitement in their eyes as they were looking at what happens when they stretch these carbons.”

Lola Stewart-Morris, who’s 13, says being in a science lab was great, but meeting these women was even better.

“We need more women scientists in the world, so I think that that was great that were women scientists leading girls to become women scientists versus men telling the girls about science,” Stewart-Morris says.

So why aren’t more women going into science and tech? Bernine Khan, director of the Science and Engineering Education Center at UT-Dallas, points to stereotypes.

“Even stereotypes from parents and from the teachers,” Khan says. “They think that maybe there’s the thought that boys still outperform girls in mathematics, science and engineering. But I think that’s changing.”

She may be right, judging by the reaction of 12-year-old Natalie Cantu.

“Cause I love doing hands-on stuff, so I think it’s kind of cool,” Cantu says. “And it’s cool just to see like what’s behind our [phone] screens and how we get our energy.”

Maybe one day, Natalie will be back in this lab. But this time, she’ll be the one teaching.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.