Polk Girls in STEM

Earlier this year, Bok Academy, Janie Howard Wilson Elementary, and Polk State College teamed up to enable young ladies opportunities to participate in a series of Saturday workshops aimed at nurturing interest in STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The Polk Girls in STEM initiative is a new program started through a grant from the GiveWell Community Foundation. This unique approach enables girls in the elementary and middle school levels opportunities to create, explore, and investigate while being supported by teachers, professors, scientists, and mentors from the Polk State College Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society.

Many studies show that these years (4th-8th grade) are crucial for getting girls on track for a future in STEM. That means educators only have a few years to nurture that passion before they may become disinterested in STEM fields forever.

The girls analyzed water samples, learned about Crooked Lake’s plants and animals, researched careers in STEM, created “trash monsters,” and spoke with women scientists from an array of backgrounds.

“The program was conceived as a means to show girls firsthand that they can be scientists,” said Polk State Professor of Earth Science Natalie Whitcomb, who spearheaded the program with Professor of Biology Logan Randolph. “This is citizen science with a local focus. It’s about our lakes, which the girls have seen firsthand, and an issue that impacts our local community. Our goal is to reach them before outside influences tell them that science is not a viable career path for them.”

The girls participated in The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project over the course of many Saturdays since October under the guidance of their teachers, Lita O’Neill and Kristiana Heath from Bok Academy, and Maribel Ortega from Janie Howard Wilson Elementary.

Damien Moses, principal of Bok Academy shared, “It is imperative that we expose all of our young girls to all of the areas of STEM”. “We are preparing young girls for the future and for jobs that don’t even exist yet,” Moses said.

Because of the program, fifth-grader Haleigh Tomlin wants to become a marine biologist.

“We have learned a lot of different things about pollution and that when you go to throw something away, you need to be aware of the different animals you can be affecting,” Haleigh said. “Through doing different experiments and learning about pollution, I realized I want to do something to protect the animals.”

Fifth-grader Taniya Cole shared a similar experience.

“I have learned that recycling is very important and that if I don’t recycle I can be harming the animals,” Taniya said.

Heath said many students have few opportunities to gain the amount of STEM exposure the program has been able to provide. “These opportunities for the girls to talk to female STEM professionals and being immersed in STEM has really opened their eyes to many possibilities and the importance of conservation,” Heath said.

Bok Academy Eighth-grader, Victoria Nguyen shared, “My favorite part about the STEM program was learning about [Crooked] Lake. Once we were on the boat, we were able to conduct different types of water quality tests. I love learning about [Crooked] Lake because I have lived in Florida my whole life and it means a lot to me that I can learn how to preserve it for future generations.”