The girls “became birds" using different utensils as their "beaks" to try to “eat” a variety of food options. Image credit: Meghan Duffy.

When it comes to firing up the minds and imaginations of young girls, the University of Michigan student organization FEMMES and their volunteers stoke the flames brightly. Graduate students and postdocs from the labs of Professors Patricia Wittkopp and Meghan Duffy and others volunteered for the recent FEMMES (Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and Science) Fall Capstone event.

FEMMES is an educational outreach organization that strives to encourage participation of females and underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Studies show that many girls begin losing interest in STEM fields around the fifth grade. To address this, FEMMES holds outreach events for girls in the third to seventh grades from underserved communities. At the Fall Capstone, 250 fourth- to sixth-grade girls from across Michigan attended.

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology graduate student Clara Shaw organized the outreach activity for the Duffy lab on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016. Others from EEB who volunteered in the Duffy lab follow (with their advisor noted if other than Duffy): graduate students Michelle Fearon (Professor Elizabeth Tibbetts), Camden Gowler, Katherine McLean, Beatriz Otero Jimenez (Professors John Vandermeer and Priscilla Tucker), Marian Schmidt (Vincent Denef), who serves on the FEMMES executive board, Andrew Wood (Tom Duda), postdoctoral fellow Alisha Quandt (Professor Tim James), and Duffy. Anat Belasen (James), who is on the FEMMES executive board, was the event photographer and social media coordinator.

The Duffy Lab activity, “Survival of the Fittest,” taught the girls about how birds feed on different types of foods, including how that is influenced by natural selection and adaptation. They began by viewing photos of iconic birds and discussing what they might be good at eating, considering their beak sizes and shapes, explained Shaw. Next, they “became birds" using different utensils (such as toothpicks, straws, clothespins) as their "beaks" to try to “eat” a variety of food options like marshmallows, pasta shells, dry beans and hard candy. After experimenting with their ability to pick up various foods, they graphed their results and discussed how differential abilities to eat particular food could result in natural selection.  

Graphing the “bird food” results. Image credit: Meghan Duffy.

“I really enjoyed working with elementary school girls from around the area because their excitement about science and nature is palpable,” said Shaw.” It's really fun to encourage their love of the natural world and teach them something at the same time.”

“Being a part of FEMMES was a blast,” said McLean. “The girls brought so many different personalities and strengths to the projects, and engaging with all their different forms of inquiry renewed my own sense of childlike excitement for science. In a time of uncertainty, the students of FEMMES make me feel hopeful. It was a great way to spend a weekend, and I look forward to returning in the future.”

The Wittkopp Lab’s FEMMES activity, "DNA Detectives," was run by EEB postdoctoral fellows Andrea Hodgins-Davis and Jennifer Lachowiec, who is on the FEMMES executive board, and four graduate students from the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology: Alisha John, Crisandra (Jade) Diaz, Abby Lamb and Petra Vande Zande. The activity introduced students to the concepts of heredity and DNA.

“We start out by showing them pictures of dogs with their puppies and ask them what they notice. We get simple answers like ‘They're cute!’ but eventually guide them towards the idea that each set of puppies looks like their parents,” said John. “We then connect this to the idea that kids look like their parents – ‘I get told all the time that I look like my sister, has anyone else ever heard someone say something like that?’ This helps them connect the idea of dogs looking like their parents to family resemblance. We then ask them if they know why kids look like their parents and guide them through to the answer of DNA.”

Next, they discussed where DNA is located in the body using a microscope projected in real-time. They looked at different vegetable cells and one of the girls’ cheek cells. The cells were stained to make the DNA visible. They asked the girls if they thought they would be able to see DNA in a cell if they were able to remove it and if they'd like to try getting DNA out of a strawberry. Next, each girl extracted DNA from a strawberry using a few common household ingredients. Each girl went home with a small tube with their stringy, white extracted DNA. Before the girls head off to their next activity, the volunteers ask who gets to do cool experiments every day? “Scientists!” They told the girls that we're all scientists, talked briefly about their own science career paths, and discussed how their school (U-M) is different from the girls’ schools.

The girls were asked what was their favorite part of the FEMMES capstone. Here are a few of their answers:

"I liked all the activities and learning things I didn't know."

"Learning some of everything in lots of STEM fields."

"I like how it's only girls."

"Meeting the U of M students."

"You learn college facts."

And a thank you note to the Wittkopp Lab said, in part, “Maybe I want to be a DNA detective someday.”

“I loved participating in FEMMES – I’ll definitely do it again if I can,” said Wood. “It was really uplifting to watch a diverse group of bright girls interact with the strong, accomplished women who were leading the activities. Role models are important, and FEMMES ensures that girls can picture themselves as leaders and scientists when they grow up.”

View images and a videos on femmesatum Instagram

Clara Shaw, Camden Gowler, Andrew Wood, Michelle Fearon and Katherine McLean team up for FEMMES. Image credit: Anat Belasen.
Volunteering their time to inspire girls in STEM: Jennifer Lachowiec, Marian Schmidt, Anat Belasen, Beatriz Otero Jimenez, Alisha Quandt.