Girls get a grip on science at Wilson

July 15, 2005|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - If you look at the stack of handouts on a table in the Wilson College science lab, you'd assume that they were intended for a class of graduate students.

With headings such as "Denaturation and Hydrolysis" and "Separation of Proteins and Determination of the Molecular Weight of Hemoglobin Using Gel Filtration Chromatography," the papers are not light summer reading.

But the 14 students sitting on the high lab stools performing experiments, discussing the results and punching numbers into calculators are young teens.


And all of them are girls.

Wilson College science majors and professors are making biochemistry and molecular biology come to life for middle school-age girls at the interactive Wilson College Summer Science Institute, held all week on campus.

The institute emphasizes creative thinking and is designed to keep girls interested in science, particularly those who would like to pursue a career in science, according to institute director Dana Harriger, Wilson associate professor of biology. "This is part of Wilson's mission to educate women."

The students will do a PowerPoint presentation for their parents today, the last day of the institute.

"Science is not just thinking up and doing experiments, but communicating the ideas," Harriger said.

The theme of the residential camp, now in its fourth year, is biochemistry and molecular biology, and how they are used in the study and understanding of physiological systems.

In the organic chemistry lab, the students took two chemicals and made nylon, a synthetic, Harriger said. They also have extracted DNA and used enzymes to cut DNA into smaller pieces, a technique used frequently in research.

While many of the techniques taught during the week are complicated, "if they are explained correctly, these students can do them," Harriger said.

"They walk out of here understanding what they did. We talk to them about what's going on chemically before they do the experiment. And if there's a mistake, they learn from it," he said.

Thursday afternoon, eight girls performed an experiment with bovine and rabbit blood, separating various molecules by gel filtration and analyzing the results with help from Deb Austin, associate professor of chemistry at Wilson.

Ali Thorpe, 15, who will be in 10th grade at Chambersburg Area Senior High School in September, said this year's theme was more to her liking than last year's, which was marine biology.

"We spent a lot of time in the creek," she said.

She and her lab partner, Brittany Spangler, waited for the other teams to finish the filtration experiment. The blood they tested had separated into four different colored components.

While the material taught in the sessions is all new to her, Ali said it was very interesting, and that she really enjoyed it.

"I'm thinking about going into forensics, and that's why I wanted to come. This opened a new field of science to me," she said.

Brittany, 14, agreed.

"This is fun," she said. "We made nylon and slime and glue. We looked at proteins and DNA and the fluorescence of cells.

"I'm obsessed with (television show) CSI, and I decided to become a forensic scientist," the Littlestown, Pa., resident added.

After doing the experiment, students entered their data into an Excel spreadsheet.

Waiting her turn at the computer terminal, Sarah Sorresso, 15, of Carlisle, Pa., said that the intense, hands-on week "teaches you a lot about science, and gives you experience. You need science for a lot of careers."

Girls applying to attend the camp must have an aptitude for science and math and be recommended by their science teachers.

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