Playing with science

CATEGORIES: Notable, Research
Julie Kuhlman explains how to extract DNA from bananas to fourth- and fifth- grade girls at Edwards Elementary School.

Julie Kuhlman wants to expand elementary girls’ opportunities to play with science.

Kuhlman, an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, helps fourth- and fifth-grade girls experience the fun of science at an after-school outreach program at Edwards Elementary School in Ames.

"I thought the kids just needed to do something fun," she said.

Kuhlman, along with two Edwards teachers and additional school and community volunteers, find experiments for the kids to do — anything that feels “wow-worthy.” Recently, the girls extracted DNA from bananas.

"It’s almost exclusively hands on," Kuhlman said.

Kuhlman was part of an after-school science program for second- through sixth-graders as a post-doctoral researcher in New York City. Wanting to do something similar here, she approached Mark Royer, who was already facilitating an after school science club for girls at Sawyer Elementary school.

Royer, who teaches the Extended Learning Program at Edwards and Sawyer Elementary Schools in Ames, started the group at Sawyer after seeing many of the girls he worked with in the Extended Learning Program showing less confidence than the boys and frequently deferring to them during group discussion.

"I started to think about what opportunities I could provide them that would help to empower them," Royer said.

The girls group went so well that he opened it up to all fifth grade girls at Sawyer Elementary. When Kuhlman approached him, Royer suggested they start something similar at Edwards for fourth- and fifth-grade girls.

“I wanted to do this because I wanted to be involved in something that would expose girls to hands-on learning activities and hopefully provide them with a positive experience so they can walk away thinking science can be exciting, cool and fun,” Kuhlman said. “I also think it is important for them to see women in STEM and that is an added bonus.”

Teresa Green, media specialist at Edwards, and Rich Roberts, a fifth-grade parent and chemistry professor at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), also joined. The three teachers take turns leading an activity every other Friday afternoon from 3:30-5 p.m.

"I hope the girls are taking away from the group a greater appreciation of how special they really are, a greater understanding of the skills they possess which they can use to meet challenges that might initially seem pretty daunting, and a greater appreciation of the really cool things you can do in STEM-related fields," Royer said.

What started with 22 girls has grown to nearly 30 girls who keep coming back with excitement. The girls say science experiments and the opportunity to participate in a program that other schools may not have is what they love most about the program.