On a recent Saturday on the campus of the University of Michigan, an educational outreach program called FEMMES (Females Excelling More in Math Engineering and Science) held one of its biannual Saturday Science Capstone events.

Two of the activities involved faculty and students from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, among dozens of other volunteers and some 200 fourth – eighth grade students from Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Detroit. The events took place mainly in the Chemistry Building, as well as in C.C. Little and the Kraus Natural Science Building.

One of the activities, “Radical Reptiles!” allowed the students to explore the incredible lives of reptiles through hands-on demonstrations using reptile specimens provided by U-M Museum of Zoology’s Division of Reptiles and Amphibians. They performed close-up observations and investigations and learned about how adaptation leads to an amazing biodiversity of reptiles. A few live reptiles were in attendance.

Ann Marie Macara, a graduate student in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, ran the station along with Delaney Cargo, an EEB master’s student and Sierra Petersen, a postdoc in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Macara is on the executive board for FEMMES as one of the Capstone Activity Coordinators.

"It was such a great experience!” said Cargo. “I'm very passionate about outreach projects that involve getting young women interested in the sciences and I am so excited to have had the opportunity to work with FEMMES in a hands-on learning environment. So often, young girls are made to feel as though science is not for them, and I think this is a major reason why we don't see more women pursuing these fields later in life. Getting girls interested and actively participating at a young age is a great way to counteract this.

"The girls were very enthusiastic to participate in the activity, which focused on reptilian adaptations, and they especially enjoyed examining specimens under the microscope. They came in with a lot of great questions and comments, and I was blown away by how much many of them already knew. When I asked one girl where she had learned so much about reptiles, she responded, ‘The Discovery Channel’."

“I strongly believe that these free day-long science capstones are a wonderful way to build a network of positive female role models for young students,” said Macara. “These mentors show girls that pursuing any of the STEM fields is a totally obtainable goal. By providing exciting hands-on activities, we are creating an atmosphere where science is fun and available to anyone. Besides, who doesn’t love a full day of awesome action-packed science learning?”

EEB Professor Meg Duffy coordinated an activity dubbed, “What’s in a lake? The fascinating critters hiding beneath the surface of our lakes.” EEB graduate students Clara Shaw and Camden Gowler assisted at this station.

“Our activity provided girls an opportunity to explore the world of plankton – that is, the small floating animals and plants that form the base of aquatic food webs,” said Duffy. Girls looked at plankton samples from local lakes, identifying and learning about the different species that they found. As part of this activity, they also learned how to use stereomicroscopes.”

“The kids were so funny!” Duffy said.  Some of the more entertaining quotes were:

"You don't say 'ew' in science!"

"Creepy but cool!"

And, "I found something that looks like a booger!"

“Events like this are important because studies have shown that middle school is when girls and students from underrepresented minorities are lost from the sciences,” Duffy continued. “By aiming the event at this age group, we hope to get them excited about science at a critical time.”

FEMMES is an educational outreach program founded at Duke University in 2005, with chapters at multiple universities. The purpose of FEMMES is to inspire young girls to become interested and inspired by math, engineering and the sciences.