Studies have shown that the industries of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are primarily male-dominated. According to Sam Grathoff, who works in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at the University of Michigan-Flint, there are many girls in the local community and around the nation who are interested in learning STEM subjects, too. So, a couple of women in the area got together – Monique Wilhem, who works in the Chemistry Department at the University of Michigan and Laurie Bone, Senior Curator at Longway Planetarium, to explore ideas for developing a STEM project for girls that would allow them to be around others who share the same interests.
Born from this collaboration was Curiosity Academy – an after-school club for middle school girls interested in learning about science, technology, engineering, and math. Monique and Laurie reached out to Sam Grathoff and Essence Wilson of Communities First, Inc., who has a background in engineering and business, to assist them in launching the program. Curiosity Academy is a community-based program funded through grants.
Now in its third year, Curiosity Academy has a waiting list. “We knew the interest was there,” says Sam. “And we knew if we caught the girls at an early age, they could pursue what they wanted, rather than what others think they should.” The program runs from October to June, and girls from sixth to eighth grade in schools throughout the county and beyond can attend. There is an application process which can be completed online and the tuition is $150, but scholarships are available. “We will be providing other funding sources so that everyone has equal opportunity to be involved,” Sam says. Last year, 27 students participated in Curiosity Academy and this year, 24 girls can be in the program.
“We do all types of fun and exciting things.”
Sam Grathoff, Chemistry & Biochemistry Dept.
University of Michigan-Flint
“It has been wonderful working with Monique and Sam, as well as the girls from Curiosity Academy,” says Essence Wilson. “My confidence in grassroots efforts to effect change has been strengthened. I have come to realize that when there are creative, skilled people working together towards a common mission, there is little that cannot be accomplished.”
The students meet on Mondays from 4 to 6pm at various locations, depending on the planned activity. “We do all types of fun and exciting things,” Sam reports. “We focus on hands-on activities and incorporate professionals who work in STEM fields.” As an example, one of the activities was about bacterial transformation, in which the students inserted DNA into bacteria that caused the bacteria to grow. A biochemist from the community came to talk to the students about the process. All of the activities build on one another to meet an all-encompassing goal by the end of the 30-week program.
The students also go on field trips. Last year, they went to Michigan State University on Science Day, as well as to Cedar Point to do various physics-related activities, like potential kinetic velocity related to roller coasters. “This year, we are incorporating health into the program. We will talk about how food turns into energy and how health and beauty products work,” says Sam. “We are also hoping to become more involved in the community.”
Another activity the students did last year was examining owl pellets. Owls eat their prey whole and can’t digest the bones, teeth, feathers or fur, so they regurgitate pellets. The students dissected the pellets and were able to determine that the owl had eaten a field mouse. “Most of the girls liked it, but some were grossed out,” Sam adds with a laugh.
Curiosity Academy has been a very rewarding experience, not only for the students, but also for the women who created the program. “It has taught me the importance of confidence, role models, and unity in our community,” says Sam. “Not only have I gained confidence through interaction with the program participants and collaborators, but I’ve also witnessed each girl’s personal growth.”
The program’s success has encouraged Sam to strive to reach more girls and make the program even more impactful. “It has also shown me the vast amount of passion and eagerness to serve our community,” she says. “Countless community members, from academic and business professionals to local businesses and foundations have voluntarily stepped forward to provide support Curiosity Academy. Their service has significantly enriched the program.”
“When we started working on Curiosity Academy, there was no money, no structure, no manual on how it should be done,” adds Essence. “We are now entering our third year of enhancing the lives of girls in the Flint community and it has been a fantastic honor to do so. The girls of Curiosity Academy have been amazing and we’ve all benefited in more ways than we have even realized.”
Photography by Eric Dutro