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St. Stan’s Elementary is fueling the pipeline for women in science, one ‘sister’ at a time

October 2, 2018
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St. Stanislaus Elementary student Izzie Biesanz, middle, discusses her science article with the rest of her classmates on Tuesday morning during the Sisters in Science program that allows students to come in during their lunch recess to talk science and do experiments.

It’s not easy to make a sixth-grader give up her lunch recess — but at St. Stanislaus Elementary School, they do it in the name of science.

In the name of Sisters in Science, to be exact, which gives girls an extra opportunity to engage with topics that span from tsunamis to jellyfish, from the human body to stars in the sky. Led by Sandi Blank, a former principal at Cotter Schools and a high school science teacher for 35 years prior, the girls are given a space to ask questions and learn from each other.

“There usually isn’t any problem keeping them motivated, because once they start sharing, everybody wants a piece of the action,” Blank said. “That curiosity is what really gets me, and it just keeps spiraling.”

Nineteen girls are currently enrolled in the program, which meets in two separate sections once a week during lunch recess. This year it’s just open to sixth-graders, though it began four years ago with one first-grader who had to miss her science class due to special sections of math and reading.

When Blank was brought in to help make that up, the questions she asked would sometimes stump her and she started thinking about how to offer that to other girls. They’re not judged and they’re not graded — it’s simply a platform to learn more.

During Tuesday’s section, the girls shared articles they’d read earlier and picked out based on their areas of interest. Maddie Lemmer, whose father was a student of Blank’s when she taught high school, told the group that she found an article about the recent tsunami in Indonesia “too kiddish” and that she wished it would have gone into more depth about the details of the disaster.

The girls also traded thoughts about which types of pollution could be the most harmful after Ellie Casperson read a veritable laundry list of pollution sources from the article she chose. They at first settled on pollution from plastics, but Izzie Biesanz had a different opinion.

“I agree (with plastics) but I also disagree,” she said, pointing out the damage that different kinds of pollution could do to the ocean.

Water is a part of everything, she argued, and damaging that could have serious effects on the human population.

“Once the ocean’s killed, we’re going to be the next generation of that,” Lemmer added.

The group connected Biesanz’s article about constellations in the October night sky to Casperson’s about pollution, noting that in different areas of Winona it’s harder to see the stars. Light pollution is even more prevalent in bigger urban areas like the Twin Cities, said one student who remembered a camping trip to Minneapolis where stars were impossible to see.

The girls do six to eight experiments in a year, dictated by the time constraint of the lunch period. After an introductory survey of their interests, Blank said this year’s topics will focus mostly on the human anatomy, which she has a wealth of experience teaching.

But even when there’s only time for a discussion, it still points the girls toward the program’s overall goal of inspiring possible career paths in science-related fields, an area that has historically been hurting for more women to get involved. The after-school STEM program at St. Stan’s actually has more girls enrolled than boys, according to principal Pat Bowlin.

And the relaxed environment has more benefits, too. In the classroom, teachers are required to get through a certain amount of material, Blank said, so “to stop and answer questions or just let them go on is not always possible.”

“I know that (boys) can monopolize conversations even more so,” she said. “A lot of times teachers will want the guys to answer, just because, ‘Well, then they’re not going to be messing around, so we’re going to get them to answer.’”

Blank added that the biggest difference between teaching high schoolers and working with this age group is that these girls still want to learn. There’s nothing shy about this group of students, she said, and their curiosity is “unbelievable.”

“They don’t get bored. High school kids will use that term all the time, ‘I’m bored,’” Blank explained. “As soon as you tell them, ‘You really need to know this,’ then they fight it. Here, it’s just like ‘give me more, give me more, give me more.’”

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