- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Sarah Redmile asked another seventh grader to pass her a white gummy bear Saturday, but this wasn’t an extended Halloween celebration.

The candy treats didn’t even pass through their lips. The girls just wanted to see what would happen when they shone red and green lasers at different-colored gummy bears.

The fun experiment was part of a daylong, girls-only science event at West Chester University that took direct aim at a vexing problem: Even in an era when more women are attending college than men, there is still a shortage of females working in the fastest-growing fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

“We want to take girls in middle and high school, when they start losing enthusiasm for science, and keep that excitement, and show them potential careers,” said Karen Schwartz, an associate professor of astronomy and one of the day’s organizers, as she passed around pieces of meteorites - billions of years old - in her Exploring the Cosmos workshop.

Other workshops at Super Science Saturday included using DNA evidence to solve crimes, a dinosaur-fossil dig for would-be biologists, and computer programming to create a virtual world. The sessions were led by female West Chester professors and aided by undergrads majoring in some of the so-called STEM fields, so that the girls would get coaching from someone close to their own age.

In the wider world of science, there aren’t a whole lot of female role models.

A 2009 survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that not only do women make up just 25 percent of the workforce in information technology but that they are more likely to drop out of the field than men.

Other surveys show the rate of young women majoring in fields such as computer science is actually dropping sharply - even as high-tech jobs have recently shown the most growth and some of the highest starting salaries. Other science and math fields are also underrepresented.

Saturday’s event - heavily promoted to female middle and high school students across the Philadelphia region - aimed to reach girls at the age when they’re making career choices and teach them that scientific work is not just important, but can be a lot of fun.

Indeed, the names of the sessions - “Candy Chromatography,” ”Dinosaur Dig,” ”Lightin’ Up Like a Laser,” and “The Amazing Heart: It’s Electric!” - sounded more like an iTunes pop playlist than a student workshop. The idea was to showcase the lighter side of science.

The girls seemed to enjoy playing along, especially when they got to do hands-on heart projects with physiology professor Maureen Knabb and her assistants.

“It’s really cool,” said Natasha Karnato, 13, an eighth grader at Sts. Philip and James School in Exton, after seeing the squiggly lines of her heartbeat on a laptop. “I’m really interested in science. It’s amazing. You learn why everybody is alive and what everything is in nature.”

After learning how to use a blood pressure cuff, Nirali Bakshi, 14, from Perkiomen High School, said she’s more interested in math and engineering than medicine and was thinking about studying computer programming.

Schwartz, the astronomy professor, recalled how, as a high school student in Oregon, she had always enjoyed the challenge of her science classes but saw it as a potential career only after taking an aptitude test. “I thought astronomy was a hobby,” she said. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

Back in the physics lab, the girls had progressed to shining lasers on gummy bears that were under a glass of water. When they stirred the water, the light swirled around the gummies like Spin Art.

“Wowww,” came the girls’ collective gasp.

Then, showing scientific curiosity, Emily Semard, 13, from Tredyffrin-Easttown Middle School, wondered why only the white gummy was reflecting the light and not the red.

Soon the girls were coming up with hypotheses and testing them out.

Sarah Redmile, a student at Scott Middle School in Coatesville, said she would consider becoming a physicist, but Emily preferred chemistry. It’s sort of in her genes.

“I like where you mix things and wait and see what happens,” she said, and added: “Both of my grandparents are chemical engineers.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1DKRTIO

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Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.inquirer.com

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