Girls learn that science and math can be fun Saturday program gives hands-on lessons

March 23, 1997|By Sara Marsh | Sara Marsh,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On a Saturday morning when others their age might be planning a trip to the mall, Sajadah Bilal, 13, and Elizabeth Planas, 11, were trying to figure out how to use some drinking straws, paper, masking tape, Popsicle sticks, rubber bands and string to protect a raw egg that was destined for a big fall.

The goal for Sajadah, an eighth-grader at Harper's Choice Middle School, and Elizabeth, a sixth-grader at Owen Brown Middle School -- and nine other girls sprawled around the top floor of The Barn in Columbia's Oakland Mills Village Center -- was to build a crate that would keep the egg intact when dropped from a height of about 16 feet.

Sound like an unusual way for a group of preteen and teen-age girls to spend a Saturday morning? Many of the girls thought so when they signed up for Operation SMART, an acronym for Science, Math and Relevant Technology.

This is a new program sponsored by the Columbia Association (CA) and designed to show girls ages 11 to 15 that math, science and technology can be fun -- that these subjects are not just for boys. The next session, lasting six weeks, will begin April 19.

"Our moms made us," said 13-year-old Capryce McRae, an eighth-grader at Wilde Lake Middle School, of the reason she and many of the other girls were there.

Capryce and her 15-year-old partner, Jackie Ingram, a freshman at Wilde Lake High School, were wrapping their raw egg in plastic straws while chatting and giggling with others in the class.

The girls said Operation SMART did not turn out to be what they expected.

"It's fun," Capryce said. "It really is, because you get to do a lot of stuff. I thought it would be like school, where the teacher just talks and talks."

Thirteen-year-old classmate Tsega Girma, an eighth-grader at Wilde Lake Middle School, paused from working on her winning egg crate.

"I like this because you get to do stuff," she said. "Boys are more into science and girls are left out, so this class focuses on science and exploring things [for girls]."

Those sentiments echo nationwide studies showing that girls start to lose interest in math and science in adolescence, studies that prompted organizers to start the new program. The first session ran eight weeks from December into last month.

"Girls' self-esteem starts to drop after 15, particularly in math and science," said Ann Scherr, assistant director of the Community Services Division for the Columbia Association. "The fear was that they wouldn't take the [math and science] classes in high school, and then they close opportunities for themselves."

Scherr's division purchased the rights to the Operation SMART program from Girls Inc., a national girls service organization formerly known as Girls Clubs of America. Girls Inc. developed the nationwide program about 10 years ago.

Working with Scherr and the materials provided by Girls Inc., Marc Clayton, an engineer at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab in Fulton, took a survey in the first class and came up with a plan focused on the girls' interests.

Clayton had experience dealing with young students as he visits schools as part of a Johns Hopkins-sponsored program called "Marc's Groovy Science."

"It's really important that these women get into the math and sciences," he said, surveying the roomful of girls as he stressed that women and minorities traditionally have been under-represented in technological fields. "Math and science are brain training."

The class meets from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays -- lunch included. Community Homes in Columbia, which operates five developments for low-income residents, sponsored seven girls and provided weekly bus transportation for them through a Ronald McDonald House grant, Scherr said.

Each week the class works on a different project, many taken from science sites on the Internet, Clayton said. The girls have heard speakers and taken field trips to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

The program, which cost $25 for Columbia residents and $35 for nonresidents, appears to be a success, Scherr said. "We'll evaluate it with the girls and their parents, but so far, I'd have to say we're pleased," she said.

The girls' parents seem to agree.

"I signed her up after seeing class information in a flier," said Brenda McKoy of Columbia's Harper's Choice village, as she dropped her 12-year-old daughter, Kea, off for class. "She got here and had a great time. She loves it. I think the whole class has been worthwhile."

"I thought it would be good because it might give her some ideas for science projects," added Clary's Forest resident Linda Clopton, referring to her 12-year-old daughter, Kristen. "It opens up her mind."

More sessions are planned, Scherr said. The program will be slightly different each time so girls can take more than one session.

To sign up for the next session of Operation SMART beginning in April or for information about the program, call 410-715-3165.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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