Homer High School senior Eryn Gillam and Nikolaevsk School sophomore Chelsea Johnson chose to spend five weeks of their summer learning.
The girls are in their second week of the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program’s Acceleration Academy at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where they are participating in hands-on activities and taking classes for dual high school and college credit along with 60 other students from across Alaska.
“We have students here from all over the state, building friendships, their own cohort of friends to work together as they move towards their academic and professional goals,” said ANSEP Accerlation Academy regional director Michael Ulroan. “It’s a great way to get students involved and excited about STEM career interests. We’re excited about this summer, especially working with a lot of students. These students are the future leaders of our state.”
The program has about an equal amount of male and female attendance, Ulroan said. This allows students to explore areas of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields without limitations that might be put on them by peers or adults in their community.
Women are underrepresented in the STEM workforce, with the greatest disparities occurring in engineering, computer science and the physical sciences, according to statistics from the National Girls Collaborative Project. President Barack Obama has also noted the need to encourage girls and women who are interested in math, science and engineering over the course of his time in the White House.
“One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent … not being encouraged the way they need to,” said President Obama in a February 2013 Google+ Hangout, according to a March 2013 White House blog.
For young women in Alaska, ANSEP’s equal playing field can be especially impactful.
“I definitely feel that for me ANSEP has filled a gap because in Homer there’s so little stuff you can do to begin with and I’ve definitely had experiences where I was not allowed the same level of involvement as the boys I was working with,” Gillam said.
“At ANSEP I haven’t felt like that. The disparity has been leveled out. I never felt like the boys are getting any sort of preference or able to dominate it all.”
For instance, students work in teams on projects involving engineering or biology. Gillam has been working on a team to construct items out of limited materials. One activity asked the students to create a motorcar out of items including a cup, bottlecaps, straws and two batteries. Another project instructed them to build the tallest tower possible out of 10 pieces of paper, 20 paper clips and a roll of tape.
“It’s challenging because a lot of times you can think of things that will work, but like with this paper tower, a lot of them we would realize it would take up too much paper or we didn’t have enough paper clips,” Gillam said. “So it makes you come up with multiple, different solutions and then find whichever one works best as far as conserving materials, which is important as an engineer.”
Before discovering ANSEP, Gillam had travelled to summer camp in the Lower 48, but it was expensive and involved a lot of travel. Gillam has been to three other ANSEP programs in previous years and said she is leaning toward pursuing a career in the biomedical field, with a primary interest in prosthetics.
“I’ve done dance for awhile and I’ve always found movement really fascinating,” Gillam said. “I’ve been exposed to different areas of medical technology in school and at ANSEP here, and it’s been fascinating.”
This summer is Johnson’s second year attending an ANSEP program. She went to the middle school summer program when she was in seventh grade.
“My principal saw that I was interested in math and doing well and he said, ‘This is a program where you can expand your interest,’” Johnson said.
Johnson said she is enjoying the longer high school program much more. She and her teammates spent time in the biomaterial lab where they learned about fungi and how it could be used to create biodegradable materials.
“We got some mushrooms and we put them on slides and such. Those can be used to put with sawdust … and the fungi grows off the sawdust and eats it, melds it together, and that’s what we would use to make the insulation sort of things. We made a mold for the fungi to grow in. We made a brick like a Lego, so they could stack on each other,” Johnson said. “The whole point was teaching us how to use biomaterials instead of things like Styrofoam so it can degrade instead of having things that would stay together forever.”