Guest Contributor: Marie Kowalski
On April 16th, twenty-seven young women arrived at Hatfield Marine Science Center, excited for two sunny days of science and engineering. The Oregon Coast STEM Hub hosted this highly engaging program called GEMS (Girls in Engineering and Marine Science) to connect 7th and 8th grade girls on the Oregon coast with female researchers and engineers working in marine-related fields. The program offered an opportunity for girls to learn about new careers, collaborate, complete engineering challenges, make new connections, and gain confidence in science and engineering.
The first engineering challenge began quickly after a brief welcome and introduction. The girls were charged with building the tallest, strongest structure possible using only a few simple materials. Each team got right to work, collaborating to create a unique design, testing their structures’ strength with pennies, and then redesigning their towers. After this creative warm-up, Sarah Henkel, a professor at Oregon State University, spoke with the group about her research on wave energy development and its effects on benthic communities. Sarah described how complex and exciting research can be, as well as the number of people it takes to operate scientific equipment like ROVs (remotely operated vehicles). The girls were then able to work in teams, designing their own ROVs and testing them by completing an underwater task. The variety of designs was amazing, and everyone got a chance to drive their ROV.
In the afternoon, the GEMS girls had a chance to meet women working with marine organisms of all sizes. Scarlett Arbuckle shared her knowledge of plankton and a method of catching plankton in a light trap. The girls designed and built their own light traps, which they later deployed in the Yaquina Estuary and left overnight. They had to wait in suspense until the next morning to see what types of plankton they had trapped.
Shifting to animals on a larger scale, Shea Steingass and Barb Lagerquist from the Marine Mammal Institute joined the group to discuss tracking harbor seals and whales. The girls got to see the tags used to track these animals, and many seemed surprised at the size of the tags. They even got to use an antenna to track a tagged “seal” hidden on the Hatfield Marine Science Center campus and practice tagging a “whale” with a straw rocket launcher! Later that afternoon, Christine Clapp from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife walked the girls through a dissection of adult Steelhead. Every single girl was engaged in the dissection, pulling out the gills, swim bladder, eyeballs, heart, and many other organs. Some even had a huge pile of bright orange eggs on their table!
At the end of the first day, the group took a survey of the shore crabs present near HMSC in the estuary, marking and releasing crabs after taking measurements. Even after a full day of scientific fun, girls enthusiastically participated in the Sleep with the Sharks sleepover program at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. The girls were able to meet female aquarium staff who worked in several different capacities at the aquarium and learn about their career paths.
After sleeping in the tunnels with sharks and other fish swimming overhead all night, the girls recovered their light traps and investigated the success of their trap designs under the microscope. They saw many copepods, a larval fish, and several other types of plankton. Friday morning also had an opportunity for the girls to explore the HMSC visitor center and take a behind the scenes tour of the facility with female HMSC husbandry staff.
OSU Fisheries and Wildlife PhD student Chante Davis lead a DNA extraction activity with the group. She also shared a demonstration showing the importance of using genetics to manage fishing practices using goldfish crackers and skittles, yum! The final GEMS guest was Marine Resource Management Master’s student Jessica Porquez. She discussed her research with wind energy devices and their potential impacts on sea birds, which also provided a context for the final design challenge: creating efficient wind turbine blades. The girls worked in teams to create, test, and redesign their turbine blades.
This two day program was exciting, collaborative, intellectual, challenging, and inspiring. Many girls asked if the program would be happening again next year, even before it was over.
When asked what was their favorite part of GEMS, some of the girls replied that they especially liked:
“All these strong science women who have done so well in their career and how they told us, thank you :)”
“I enjoyed learning about all of the different marine life and being able to learn about how people got to where they are now.”
“I enjoyed the part when we learned the sleepover attendants’ way to their job over at the aquarium. It really inspired me to learn how to pursue the husbandry industry.”
“Everything! But if I had to choose it would be the light trap, the crab survey, the wind turbine experiment and the fun sleepover!!!!!”
Marie Kowalski is a master’s student at Oregon State University in Marine Resource Management with a focus on marine education. She is currently developing a relevant middle school curriculum about microplastics for her thesis. Marie also gets to be involved with some of the education-related programs at Hatfield, including the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and events like GEMS!