Middle school program helps girls develop math and science skills

By: Jeremy Selweski | C&G Newspapers | Published December 24, 2013

METRO DETROIT — A Wayne State University program designed to keep seventh-grade girls focused on a successful career path is available to all school districts in the tri-county area, including Chippewa Valley Schools, but it only accepts a limited number of students each year.

The free program, Gaining Options-Girls Investigate Real Life (GO-GIRL), was created to help girls build confidence, capacity and awareness of the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Developed more than a decade ago via a collaboration between Wayne State’s College of Education and the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, GO-GIRL was a response to the decline in mathematics interest and achievement among girls and minority youth at the middle school level.

“Seventh grade is a time when students start deciding which track of math they’re going to pursue in high school and college,” said Dr. Sally K. Roberts, director of GO-GIRL and an assistant professor at Wayne State. “The gap also starts to widen between girls and boys, so we’re trying to get more girls onto the advanced track. In college, math tends to be a gatekeeper for a lot of students — it’s the barrier that holds them back from pursuing STEM careers.”

More than 800 seventh-grade girls from across metro Detroit have participated in GO-GIRL on the Wayne State campus since the program’s inception in 2002. But because of its limited resources, only about 60 students are accepted into GO-GIRL each year during the university’s winter semester.

The 2014 program, which begins on Jan. 18, is already full. Roberts noted that this year, she received applications from “a very diverse group” of about 150 girls at 86 different middle schools. In Chippewa Valley, there was one girl — a seventh-grader from Wyandot Middle School — accepted into the program out of three that applied.

GO-GIRL integrates mathematics with social science research methods in a single-sex, technology-rich environment. For 10 weeks, students meet every Saturday from 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. at Wayne State, where they work in groups on a project-based curriculum related to student interests and experiences. Roberts said that she is “very excited” to be focusing on a social-justice issue this year, specifically the availability of fresh and healthy foods in urban areas.

Guided by university student mentors, each team of girls will utilize the scientific method by developing a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis using Wayne State resources, and then analyzing and interpreting their data to reach an informed conclusion. At the end of the program, each team will make a public presentation of their findings.

“These girls need to know that they can stack up against anybody, when it comes to math and science,” Roberts said. “If they’re committed to learning, then they’ll get there, and the amount of growth and experience that they will gain from this program is invaluable. It’s not so much about skill building as it is about capacity building.”

Girls who complete the GO-GIRL program typically demonstrate greater confidence in their math and science abilities, as well as increased achievement levels. This positive change is largely attributed to the program’s collaborative learning environment and its mentoring component.

Claire Brisson, director of career technology education for Chippewa Valley Schools, believes that GO-GIRL provides the opportunity for students to begin considering a STEM-based career at a younger age.

“It’s a great program, but I definitely think we need to do a better job of promoting it in our district,” she said. “We have such a huge skills gap in this country, when it comes to these types of careers, and girls are especially getting left behind. We haven’t done a good enough job of making (the STEM subjects) seem relevant to our students.”

Brisson pointed out that, in 2012, roughly half of recent college graduates in the U.S. were either under-employed or unable to find a job in their chosen field. She added that this trend has led to “an interesting paradox” in which there are numerous STEM-based careers going unfilled across the nation, especially in the manufacturing industry, because very few college graduates possess the qualifications to fill these roles.

“We, as a country, need to excite students about these types of careers at a younger age, because kids are really missing out on a lot of great opportunities,” Brisson said. “By and large, we are still using the educational model of a bygone era. We need to be cultivating 21st century thinking by teaching kids how to ask good questions, think critically and apply (STEM) concepts to real life.”

Although Wayne State provides university venues and resources for GO-GIRL, it does not devote any operating funds to the program. GO-GIRL was initially funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation but more recently has depended on financial support from the Michigan Department of Education, the RGK Foundation and private donors.
While the sustainability of GO-GIRL is always a challenge, Roberts is happy to be spending her time on a program that focuses on opening doors for girls — doors that too often have been closed in the past.

“Honestly, I would have retired a long time ago if not for this program,” she said. “It’s the most rewarding experience of my 46 years in education.”

For more information on GO-GIRL, visit www.gogirls.wayne.edu or call (313) 577-2424.