Telling a story through science: Stuart Country day School makes STEM camp special for students

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Students Jenna Lu

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
At a point in the morning one day last week when she could have been anywhere, Rosheeta Shah was one hour into a full day of learning at Stuart Country Day School.
Being there from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. did not feel like attending school, said a self-described lover of science during a break from trying to design a roller coaster with tape, ice pop sticks, tooth picks and insulation foam.
She and seven other girls of middle school age spent the past week at a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, camp taught by Julia Britt, a science teacher at Stuart. Those fields of study are stressed at this private Catholic girls school that has an entire wing of the school building devoted to them.
Inside a lab classroom were perhaps the next engineers or scientists, still a ways from high school or college, but expressing their love of fields that have been male-dominated.
Former Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman has talked of her decision to put “blinkers” on to press ahead with becoming a scientist and “ignore the signals” telling her not to “pursue science as a career.”
To get more women into STEM, a group like the American Association of University Women has said young women should be encouraged to take higher level math and science courses as high schoolers. “Girls who take calculus in high school are three times more likely than girls who do not to major in a scientific or engineering field in college, “ the organization said in a report seven years ago.
Topics at the Stuart camp varied by day. One time it was learning about DNA and molecular biology; another it was designing prosthetic legs after learning about the skeleton.
“One of the things that I think makes our Stuart STEM camp so special, I like to tell a story through science,” Britt said. “So by the time we got to the design and engineering of the prosthetic leg, we had learned a story of the skeletal system to the bioengineering to the design process.”
Britt divided the time lecturing and also giving students the space to learn hands on. The classes were meant to challenge the girls, she said, but done in a way that they will learn and grab onto the material.
“Even though it’s like going to school, it doesn’t feel like school,” said Rosheeta, a rising seventh-grader from Plainsboro. “We do a lot (of) experiments and that’s, to me, the best part of science.”
“Well, it’s not like normal school days where you just learn all the time,” said rising sixth-grader Abby Zhou, “you can also have fun while learning.”
Students like Abby talked about their love of science, “one of the subjects where I want to know more about it,” in her words.
Another camper said she is looking to enter a STEM career as an adult.
“I want to be an engineer when I grow up,” said Faith Szarvas, a rising seventh-grader, “so I figured this is a good start.”
This was Faith’s second year in a row attending the Stuart STEM camp, an experience she spoke fondly of.
“I love this camp, I just love it,” she said.
On this morning, she and the other girls were competing in teams of two to make a roller coaster, with the creativity of their design and the cost in supplies they had to “buy” with play money all taken into account. The trick is making sure the marble that starts at the top of the miniature amusement ride makes it all the way down to the bottom without falling out–not an easy task as the girls discover.
Britt watches with pride as they create their designs and try to figure things out.
“Just to see that process and the learning and the growing that they do,” she said.