MURRAY — The Murray Independent School District (MISD), with the help of the MISD Foundation For Excellence (MFE), is opening doors to girls through numerous opportunities for girls-only clubs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Usually a heavy interest area for boys, the MISD is creating a contagious self-confidence commonality experienced by girls involved in the two STEM programs at Murray Elementary School (MES), and the after-school fourth-fifth grade girls’ STEM club at Murray Middle School (MMS)
Dr. Ron Cella, MFE treasurer, said Murray’s outstanding teachers always keep up with the latest developments in education, and the MISD Foundation awards grants to help them use new strategies and resources.
“Recent emphasis on STEM will afford many opportunities to help, “ said Cella.
Emerson Smee, an MES second grade student, believes leadership skills are being taught while she attends the after-school STEM club.
“I like it because you learn very cool things and technology, and then try to do them on your own and be your own teacher,” said Smee.
Kylie Hendrith, MMS fifth grade student, said, “Girls can be as independent as boys.”
Taylor Garland, an MMS member of the after-school STEM club, said, “Girls by themselves can be independent.”
Garland hopes to become a veterinarian that designs and creates prosthetics for animals.
Whitney York, MISD technology integration specialist, said this bonding between Smee, Hendrith and Garland is the attitude that is hoped to be streamlined into the STEM interest for females. Information technology classes offered at MHS are predominantly filled with male students.
“A small population of females enroll at Murray High in this area,” said York. “We are working daily to correct this and that begins with exposing our females at a young age to these areas. I knew we had great electives and opportunities being offered to girls in seventh and eighth grade, but we needed to spend some efforts on building up the grades below to increase interest in STEM areas.”
STEM initiatives involve coding, engineering, circuit guiding and digital media through a variety of fun and educational activities.
“Girls and boys learn differently,” said York. “Boys inherit STEM opportunities and knowledge, whether that’s games they play or just the maturing into that level of understanding. Our goal is to create the same opportunities for girls that provides them with self-worth, social acceptance and belonging. It’s important for all students to be exposed to 21st century skills including communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. STEM is the perfect opportunity for these skills.”
Exposure starts early at MISD. Murray Elementary offers two programs for second and third grade females only. Marcy Back and Thenia Gibson offer an after-school program for second grade females. Jackie Robinson and Beth Wood offer an after-school STLP (Student Technology Leadership Program) for third grade boys and girls, and third graders also have the opportunity to participate in robotics with Kinda Dawson
The Murray Elementary second grade girl’s STEM club is the longest running “girls only” STEM opportunity and is in its fifth year. Thenia Gibson and Marcy Back sponsor the club and have assistance from two Murray State University professors, Elizabeth Donovan and Maeve McCarthy, both from the College of Science, Engineering and Technology. Gibson said the goal of the MES STEM Club is to emphasize innovation.
“Our program emphasizes teamwork and communication, and fosters self-confidence and leadership as main focuses of our club,” said Gibson.
Robinson and Wood have 31 girls and 23 boys in the group. This year, the group meets, boys only, one week and girls only the next. Robinson was excited to see 54 students wanted to join STLP.
“I was ecstatic to learn that the majority of those students were girls,” said Robinson. “This year we have learned about coding, graphic design and 3D CAD design. We will finish the year learning about digital media and create public service announcements for the students at Murray Elementary. The girls have learned about problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration. This spring, we are excited to focus on the leadership aspect of STLP. I can’t wait to see where the program goes next year.”
York went on to explain females who are exposed to STEM at a young age can move past pre-existing barriers.
“They need to be introduced to STEM areas early, especially girls,” said York. “If we build them up with early exposure at a young age, then we can combat stigma, connect and move beyond the barriers with motivation to seek opportunities.”
Creating opportunities and building self confidence in science, technology, engineering and math is the main mission of the MMS after-school fourth and fifth grade STEM for girls. The club is led by Christine Hamilton, MMS fourth grade science teacher, Dr. Stephanie Hendrith, MSU assistant professor and mother of a two female STEM MMS students, and Lourdes Oster, MMS fifth grade reading and writing teacher.
Hamilton said the STEM club has been a rewarding experience for the more than 50 MMS fourth and fifth grade female students.
“It has allowed students to break through their fears and misconceptions about the challenges of science content, come to love science and be excited about learning in this new way,” said Hamilton.
Oster believes STEM is important to build self-confidence in girls.
“Not only for the engineering aspect,” said Oster, “but also for the problem-solving skills and perseverance they gain from participating, which is crucial.”
The girls have been exposed to experiences in coding through code.org and other resources, engineering, programming robots, building structures, 3D modeling and more. From simple items like Legos and cardboard, to more advanced technology like Ozobots and Spheros, there is a wide range of tools available for all ages.
“There is an abundance of great tools on the market right now to get students interested in these STEM areas,” said York. “We’ve done what we can to purchase these so our students can have engaging experiences in many different areas.”
“Most boy things are not fun, but this is pretty cool, and we can do engineering too,” said Kylie Hendrith. “It is fair for girls to do engineering also.”
Hendrith hopes to become a science teacher. Her mother, Dr. Stephanie Hendrith, partnered with the MISD and volunteers with the program to provide girls with an opportunity to learn, collaborate and participate with their peers. Hendrith said as the mother of two daughters in the program, she is excited that her girls and their friends ask her when STEM meets again.
“My younger daughter London, 10, now wants to work with computers and multimedia when she grows up,” said Hendrith. “Before she didn’t really know what she wanted. My oldest daughter Kylie, 11, loves to build things with K’Nex and Legos, and isn’t as shy as she was when we started. Science is her favorite class, and it’s hard to get her away from her computer.”
Hendrith said if one girl decides to pursue STEM in the future, then their impact is exponential.
“The great thing about working with girls this age is that they are not scared to take risks and learn something new – they just have to feel like their voices are heard,” said Hendrith. “Having the girls STEM club provides a space for them to be heard. There is currently a gap in the number of males and females in the field, and if we show girls at an early age that STEM can be for anyone, it may increase their willingness to pursue it as a career.”
York said building exposure and providing the learning tools for STEM would not have been possible without the assistance of the Murray Independent Foundation For Excellence.
“We are small and do a lot with a little,” said York. “However, with help each year from The MISD Foundation, our impact can continue to grow. These programs are often done through teachers volunteering their time after school, and in the past, have received little to no funding support. In order to keep these programs relevant, we not only need equipment, technology and supplies, but we need to be able to support our teachers for the time they give to the programs.”
Numerous mini-grants awarded by the foundation have assisted in funding the current STEM offerings. Other awards were $1,000 from the Pella Foundation (a donation to the MISD Foundation), $1,000 Walmart community grant and a $2,500 Toyota For Education grant. These grants, in combination with school funds, have been crucial to buying supplies needed to expose girls in STEM clubs and benefit all students at the MISD.
For more information regarding the MISD Foundation’s activities visit www.murrayfoundation.net.