by Connie Kot

GEST kids look at photo-identification
Activity leaders from Duke University Marine Lab, Kim Urian (pictured) and Danielle Waples (not pictured), show GEST participants how photo-identification analysis can be used to estimate dolphin population numbers. Photo: Connie Kot

The Duke University Marine Lab hosted a Girls Exploring Science & Technology (GEST) event on April 13th, 2019, where over 200 middle school girls from local, neighboring, and distant counties (even as far as Virginia!) came to learn and have fun with a broad range of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) activities.  In addition to providing a free event within the eastern North Carolina (NC) community, GEST is geared towards educating and encouraging women to consider pursuing STEM fields at a time where discrimination, bias, and barriers still exist.  During the plenary, Duke University PhD student Hillary Smith and McCurdy scholar Dr. Erendira Aceves-Bueno both gave inspiring talks about the challenges that are specific to women with a career in STEM, advice on how to not be discouraged, and some tips to overcome obstacles such as staying persistent, supporting others while proactively seeking support, and having courage even when others may not believe in your abilities.  These messages seem to be particularly timely, given the current trend of women leaving STEM fields at higher rates than men, even after studying and excelling in STEM classes and jobs.  Countless studies have been conducted to pinpoint reasons for this trend, but it is obvious: women are underrepresented, and the gap should be closed.

Activity leaders Lori Davis (NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources) and Janina Millis (University of NC at Chapel Hill) teach GEST participants how to dissect squid, identify its sex, and use its “pen” to write their names with squid ink. Photos: Connie Kot

Duke University Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab members (Sarah Poulin, Ellie Heywood, and I) helped plan and volunteered during the event, joining a very large team of mostly female scientists or engineers, including those that were pursuing degrees in science, professional scientists/engineers, or science educators.  The effort was led by Duke University PhD students and volunteers came from a variety of local institutions and organizations, including Duke University (Marine Lab and main campus), University of NC at Chapel Hill, NC State University, Carteret Community College, US Navy, local high schools, Girl Scouts, NC Aquarium, NC Coastal Federation, and NC Department of Natural Resources.

In an activity organized by the Girl Scouts’ Melissa Almodovar and Arriane Garden (both not pictured), GEST participants programmed commands to navigate robots through mazes. Photos: Connie Kot

GEST has grown since it began in 2016; once this year’s registration was open and announced online, a large number of participants immediately signed up for the many activity modules offered, such as programming robots, exploring plants and animals in the estuary, dissecting squids, and learning to calculate populations from dolphin photos.  One fan favorite was the activity organized by NC State University on analyzing gut content, where a model stomach was constructed with gelatin and various “treasures” inside.  The girls loved the hands-on messiness and had no problem digging in!  My personal favorite was learning about veterinarian techniques from local NC Aquarium veterinarians, with a close-up look as to how an individual fish’s health would be assessed and hearing its heartbeat.

In an activity led by NC State University’s Nora Skinner (pictured), Emma Teed, and Kendahl Miller (both not pictured), GEST participants find normal and abnormal items within an animal’s “stomach.” Photos: Connie Kot

Not only was it great to see how excited the girls were while participating in the event, I was also impressed by how the community of volunteers was so enthusiastic about teaching STEM in creative ways that kept everyone engaged.  Several girls that came this year have attended GEST in previous years and based on comments I heard from them, along with teachers and parents, I am sure many others will want to return next year.  Mark your calendars: the next Duke GEST event is planned for April 4, 2020! And due to the success of GEST at the Duke Marine Lab, Duke University organizers have helped with kickstarting a new GEST-IMS for high school girls, led by the University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences in neighboring Morehead City, NC. The event is planned for Saturday, October 12 and more information can be found online. In the meantime, the energy that was felt while planning and interacting with everyone throughout the day of this year’s GEST has motivated many, including me, to seek out more opportunities to connect with those that may be curious about STEM but consider themselves new or non-scientists, especially those that are underserved.

GEST participants assess an anesthetized fish’s health, look for parasites, and listen to its heartbeat in an activity led by NC Aquarium’s Dr. Emily Christiansen (pictured) and Heather Broadhurst (not pictured). Photo: Connie Kot

GEST in the media: