W&L Women Mentor the Next Generation Women in Technology and Science gives girls from local middle and elementary schools an opportunity to perform science experiments in all disciplines during the academic year.
On a recent weekday, 15 students sat in Washington and Lee University’s IQ Center and discussed what they would need for a trip to outer space.
One suggested dehydrated food; another pointed out that they would need proper attire. Of course, these students aren’t actually going to space — in fact, they can’t even drive yet. This group is made up of fifth-grade girls, and they were on campus for a Women in Technology and Science (WITS) meeting.
WITS combats the societal idea that only boys should be pushed to excel in math and science. The program’s mission is to encourage young women to pursue science and technology by giving girls from local middle and elementary schools an opportunity to perform science experiments in all disciplines during the academic year.
WITS started in 2012 and has expanded every year since. This year, more than 116 female W&L students signed up to work with local school girls from Natural Bridge Elementary, Rockbridge County elementary and middle schools. Currently, a total of about 60-70 girls are enrolled in the program, and the goal is to recruit more. In the future, WITS would like to expand to include high school girls.
Each meeting with the schools covers a hands-on science-related discipline, such as geology or biology. Kaitlyn Gardner ’18, vice president of WITS, said she plans her lessons around current events.
“I want the girls to not only learn the lesson but also have some context to go by,” she said.
For example, a recent experiment was inspired by Elon Musk’s recent rocket launch. WITS participants talked about gravity on the moon, heard a short interactive lecture, and did an activity with plastic plates (the moon) and candy (moon base).
At another meeting, the girls extracted DNA from strawberries while W&L students walked around the room, offering feedback and solutions. From time to time, the younger students questioned the advice of the college students.
“I love it when they tell me their own opinion or even challenge mine,” said Gardner. “It means we are reaching our goal of teaching them to be strong, independently thinking women.”
Some upcoming experiments include making layers of the earth with pudding, Oreos and other candies, as well as constructing 3D animal cells.
“They get so excited and so into it,” said Gardner. “You forget what it is like to be that age and have a girl role model who will sit there and talk to you. The problem we are trying to combat with these girls is a lack of role model figures in science.”