Middle school girls visiting ECU for the STEM Girls Conference work as a team to translate a genetic code into a person made of pipe cleaners and marshmallows. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

Pitt County students learn about STEM careers at ECU

Oct. 10, 2014

By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services

Eighth-grader Beyoncé Best portrayed a plant manager for a Goldfish cracker manufacturing facility in an exercise Oct. 10 at East Carolina University.

When there were too few red crackers to fill an order, it was up to Best to figure out what happened.

Best was one of about 100 middle school girls from Pitt County attending the fifth annual STEM Girls Conference, dedicated to promoting careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

Mixed with hands-on activities like taking a product from creation to market, girls learned about careers they could pursue with a STEM degree.

D’Asia Outlaw of Ayden Middle School works with marshmallows and pipe cleaners during an activity on genetics at the STEM Girls Conference on campus.
Best, a student at A.G. Cox Middle School, is already on board. “Women should be in the science field just as much as men,” said Best. “We do just as well. We should try and get more women involved.”

Students and faculty in the College of Engineering and Technology, Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, Brody School of Medicine and the College of Education collaborated to host the annual event.

Dr. Janet Sanders, assistant professor of technology systems who led the snack supply chain session, talked with Best and other students about the types of things technologists can do, from managing product lines to entire plants.

“People in STEM fields make good money. People in STEM fields are going to have a job (after college) and that’s important after you invest all that into it,” Sanders said.

STEM careers pay, on average, about 30 percent more than non-STEM jobs. Yet only 25 percent of STEM jobs are held by women.

Breanna Campbell, an ECU freshman engineering major from Weldon, helped with an activity where girls used a genetic code to create a “person” out of pipe cleaners and marshmallows. Some marshmallow sizes or colors were dominant, like genes.

Campbell said she hoped the event would encourage more girls to consider engineering as a major. “As long as you can stay motivated, you can do anything you want,” Campbell said.

Engaging girls in opportunities at younger ages is vital to increasing interest in later years, said gene session leader Dr. Jamie DeWitt, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the Brody School of Medicine.

“If I hadn’t had the chance to learn about science in a hands-on fashion, I definitely wouldn’t have pursued a degree in science,” DeWitt said. “This held true for me from middle school all the way through graduate school. Classroom learning is great for foundational knowledge, but ‘doing’ science is what gives us the passion to dig more deeply.”

Other activities included making secret messages with prime numbers and crushing cans to understand material properties.

Angela Anderson, a student at Hope Middle School, said she wanted to attend the conference because she is considering a job in science or math, subjects in which she excels. “I’m seeing how you can use math, science and technology separately, or together, and how you can use them in life,” Anderson said.

She said she enjoys science class at school because of the variety of things involved, from learning about the water cycle to the human body. “It has different branches you can learn about,” she said.

Teachers and counselors from all 13 public middle schools in Pitt County selected participants who showed an interest in math or science, are self-motivated or have the potential to be sparked by such an event.

Grady-White Boats and Mayne Pharma (formerly Metrics) sponsored the conference. Pitt County Schools provided transportation.


Margaret Turner of the College of Engineering and Technology contributed to this story.

ECU biomedical engineering student Grace Banan works with the middle school girls visiting campus for the STEM Day Conference.