Women in Science Conference at UW Provides STEM Career Possibilities

May 10, 2012
Woman working in lab
Cassandra Kahl, a sophomore at Glendo High School, uses a pipette to fish out her DNA and place it in a beaker during the "Your DNA" session at the Women in Science Conference May 7. More than 400 high school and middle school female students attended to learn more about career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Students learned how to swab their own saliva for DNA; tested their green thumb to grow tomato plants in a cut-up plastic soda bottle; and identified various animals by using clues that included skull size and teeth shape. And some even got to observe a human cadaver.

"I liked the variety of activities they had," says Carson Black, an eighth-grader from Douglas Middle School. "I was able to see a cadaver, which was really cool. It smelled bad, though."

Diana Palu, a seventh-grader from Johnson Junior High School in Cheyenne, concurred.

"It was cool, but it had a smell to it. It made me light-headed," Palu says.

Cadavers, chemistry and career exploration was all part of the scene at the 13th annual Women in Science Conference, which took place at various locations on the University of Wyoming campus May 7.

The conference was designed to spark interest in young women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) -- career fields in which males traditionally fill the majority of positions. Nearly 400 female high school and middle school students from around the state participated.

The conference included nearly 30 hands-on workshops; tours of UW labs and research facilities; opportunities to meet professionals who "conduct science" on a daily basis in their careers; various interactive exhibits, including a miniature tornado displayed by the National Weather Service; and even a live animal demonstration, provided by the Denver Zoo.

"Many of the girls were inspired by the variety of science careers available to them," says Michele Turner, program coordinator of the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium, which organized the event. "It was a great learning experience, and we hope we have instilled confidence in the attendees to pursue whatever career excites them."

Growing Plants Hydroponically

Some students learned how to grow a tomato plant hydroponically, using a cut-up plastic soda bottle, tape, a felt wick, Purlife, fertilizer and water.

"A hydroponic plant literally means growing plants without soil," says Jessica Friis, a horticulturalist for the Paul Smith Children's Village at Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, who conducted the "Hydroponic Plant" course.

Friis provided students a few helpful tips: Use water at room temperature when watering plants; don't use the full amount of fertilizer recommended on the package; don't sit your plants near an open window at night; and keep the plants inside until June 1 to ensure the plants don't freeze and die.

Citing her own experience, Friis stressed to students to not give up if their tomato plant doesn't grow successfully the first time.

"If you get it home and you forget to water it, don't get discouraged and give up from ever growing a plant again," Friis says.

Bobbi York, a Douglas Middle School eighth-grader, who attended the hydroponic plant workshop, says she eventually would like to become a forensic anthropologist. Because of its anthropologyGabrielle Robinson, a student from Johnson Junior High in Cheyenne, observes the movement of a miniature tornado. program, York says she is considering UW as a potential college choice.

More Plant Than Mammal

In another workshop, students learned how to extract their own DNA -- using laboratory instruments and everyday household items, including salt, dish detergent and meat tenderizer. Students were able to place their DNA in a small plastic vial and string it, creating a necklace keepsake.

"I've never extracted DNA before. It was easier than I thought," says Katana Kline, a sixth-grader from Glendo Schools.

Students were most surprised to learn that their genetic makeup is actually much closer to fungus than mammal, and that they have roughly 3 billion "letters" in their DNA cells, of which 99.9 percent are identical to anyone else.

"One-tenth of 1 percent is different, which leaves 3 million differences," says Dorothy Tuthill, a lecturer in the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center.

Identifying Animals

Forest ecology, hydrology, mechanical engineering and astronomy were other workshop subjects. Many of the sessions were run by UW professors or graduate students.

Jamie Crait was one of those graduate students. Crait, a UW doctoral student in ecology, tested students' knowledge of different animals by having them examine skulls of the animals, which ranged in size from a large grizzly bear to a tiny shrew. Crait encouraged the students to look at the location of eyes on the skulls as well as the teeth formation for identifying clues.

"Eyes on the side, animals hide. Eyes in the front, animals hunt," Crait chimed out as students moved around the tables to observe the various skulls and draw their individual conclusions.

Later, students used radio telemetry to track down items Crait hid on campus near Old Main. The practice mimicked how wildlife biologists locate and study animals that have been outfitted with transmitters.

A visit from the Denver Zoo

The day wrapped up with an animal assembly, courtesy of the Denver Zoo. A baby American alligator, an Asian box turtle, a corn snake, a barn owl and a saw whet owl comprised the menagerie brought out for a glimpse. The animals drew "oohs" and "aahhs" from the students, who snapped photos using their cell phones.

Students also learned of the zoo's different career opportunities, including animal husbandry (zookeeper), exhibit design, conservation, research, and outreach and education.

Sarah Metzer, a science program specialist at the Denver Zoo, offered this bit of advice for those interested in a career working at a zoo.

"Keep taking those math and science courses. We have to bring in all of that knowledge to solve problems," she says. "Most jobs (at the zoo) have a requirement of a four-year undergraduate degree in social sciences."

Like a number of visiting students, Palu took a campus tour, viewed UW apartments and discussed scholarships.

"I want to see if I want to come here for my future," says Palu, who mentioned a doctor or a veterinarian as career interests. "I want to see how I can get better now for my future."

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