Girls display their graphs comparing eating as "clothespin bugs" under different conditions.

Why do children look like their parents? What’s symbiosis? Where is my DNA and what does it look like? How is ice cream made? These questions and countless others were the subject of exploration at the Spring Capstone for Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and Science (FEMMES) at the University of Michigan.

The labs of Professors Meghan Duffy and Patricia Wittkopp once again coordinated events for the 4th to 6th grade girls from area schools.

The Duffy lab activity was called Friends and Foes in Nature and focused on symbiosis, which is any type of close and long-term biological interaction between two different organisms. Among other activities, girls pretended to eat as "clothespin bugs." They went through one round of feeding on popcorn kernels without a symbiont. Then, they were attacked by a parasite, represented by a rubber bound around the bug's "mouth" that made it hard to eat. Next, they got rid of the parasite and acquired a mutualist, which was a spoon that made it easy to eat!

EEB graduate students Michelle Fearon and Clara Shaw developed the Friends and Foes in Nature activity. In addition to Fearon and Shaw, Camden Gowler, Katherine McLean, Morgan Rondinelli, an undergraduate student in the Duffy lab, and Duffy ran the activity.

EEB postdoctoral fellow Jennifer Lachowiec worked behind the scenes to coordinate 20 activities offered at U-M. Some of the activities from the FEMMES capstone included: stoplight circuits, tower tycoons, liquid nitrogen ice cream and DNA detectives. “My favorite new activity was robotics with Girl Develop It Ann Arbor, where the girls learned how to make robotic hands out of paper, plastic straws and string,” said Anat Belasen, an EEB graduate student who took photos, coordinated social media for the event and made sure things ran smoothly.

Students learn about stoplight circuits.

Petra Vande Zande, a graduate student in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, led the Wittkopp Lab activity, DNA Detectives. Students explored questions like why kids look like their parents and what makes a dog a dog and a person a person. The girls investigated DNA, the physical material that makes living things, including where DNA is found in the body. Hands-on experiments involved extracting DNA from a strawberry using common household ingredients and creating slides of vegetable cells and the girls’ cheek cells. They dyed the DNA for viewing under the microscope. “We simply wanted to bring home the point that all living things contain DNA, and that it is located in the nucleus of each cell,” said Vande Zande.

Wittkopp volunteers included: Andrea Hodgins-Davis, EEB postdoctoral fellow, and MCDB graduate students Jade Diaz and Abby Lamb. The activity was primarily developed by MCDB grad Alisha John.

“One really remarkable thing this year was that on the surveys where the participants were asked if they knew a woman in STEM, several girls wrote down the names of the women featured in the film “Hidden Figures” (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson),” said Belasen.

Xorla Ocloo and Teal Harrison, EEB grads, were group leaders who each led about 10 girls from room to room and helped them with the activities. “I volunteer for outreach events because it's a way for young girls to see someone that looks like them doing science,” said Ocloo.  

EEB graduate student Michelle Fearon coaches the students with the ecology activity.

Ocloo helped the girls with the following: a math activity where they learned how numbers can tell stories, build circuits, explore the chemistry involved in making ice cream and learn about coding, which she said was “super cool!” She worked with them on ecology in the Duffy lab (her personal favorite). “The girls of course loved the ice cream activity, but also really liked the ecology activity from the Duffy lab.”

The FEMMES executive board for 2017-2018 includes the following EEB graduate students:  Marian Schmidt, data manager; Joanna Larson, treasurer; Beatriz Otero Jimenez, outreach coordinator; and Belasen, secretary, formerly PR/social media coordinator.

Nearly 140 4th to 6th grade students from schools in Ypsilanti, Romulus, Dearborn, Detroit, Ann Arbor and Saline attended the event on Saturday, March 25, 2017.

The day consisted of a keynote speaker, lunch, and a rotation of fun STEM activities. During the lunch break, some of the girls started dancing. Ocloo joined them and, she said, “the girls taught me some awesome new dance moves!” Which goes to show that science and dancing do mix!

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. FEMMES is an educational outreach program founded at Duke University in 2005, with chapters at multiple universities. Capstone events are held each spring and fall at U-M.

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