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Science of sisterhood: Girls STEM Institute encourages education, 'authentic selves'

Mathematics education associate professor Crystal Morton, left, leads some of her Girls STEM Summer Institute campers through a coding exercise. Morton is the founder of the Girls STEM Institute, which serves Indianapolis-area girls year-round.

For the past six years, Adeola Yusuf has carved out almost four weeks of her summer vacation to attend the Girls STEM Institute.

The Pike High School junior was among the first class: 15 Indianapolis-area girls who learned much more than science, technology, engineering and math on the IUPUI campus.

"This is my summer family," Yusuf explained. "It's a great experience to feel so welcomed."

The annual summer camp led by IUPUI mathematics education associate professor Crystal Morton has grown to 46 students, the most in the summer program's history. The 2019 camp ran from June 10 to July 2, and the campers were divided into two groups -- elementary school students in one and middle and high school students in the other. The groups often mixed together to create mentor/mentee relationships or big sisters/little sisters.

Girls STEM Institute holds events year-round and was created by Morton as an answer to her research on black girls' performance in mathematics. Through the institute, Morton has come closer to understanding and developing a curriculum to enhance the girls as STEM learners despite external factors that adversely affect their learning.

The Girls STEM Summer Institute encourages education while developing a sisterhood between the young campers. Video by Samantha Thompson, Indiana University

A June 14 visit to the summer camp saw the campers learning basic coding to control small robots before getting some physical activity via a dance workshop led by Michael Humphrey of the Asante Children's Theatre. With so much time with the same group of girls, Morton is able to balance STEM education with "brain breaks" and "real talk" sessions. Then there are activities that combine science with creative, hands-on pursuits.

"I don't want them to feel like they're in school," Morton said. "Some of them have great experiences in school, but some of them don't. This has to be a space where they can be their authentic selves.

"We make natural hair and skin oils. We made strawberry jam. We want them to know how to make things themselves. In the process, they're doing science, even if they don't know it."

Yusuf said those first years in the camp helped her later in high school. She was exposed to many new STEM concepts early, and it helped her gain enthusiasm for school subjects she would have normally dreaded.

"It helped me accept every subject," Yusuf said. "Not every subject is going to be your best, but you have to try your hardest to make it your best."

Taking flight

While created as a passion project by Morton, the Girls STEM Institute has grown organically. The educator has brought in IUPUI students to help her and has also inspired campers to later attend IUPUI. In the past two years, Morton has had her older students build electronic, remote-controlled model airplanes as well as take part in flight simulations. Mixing in some aeronautical engineering is just another ingredient to the summer camp's diverse educational trajectory.

The Girls STEM Summer Institute offers a variety of activities for the campers. Students take "brain breaks" in the form of dance workshops, top, and flight simulations, right. Photos by Liz Kaye, top and left, and Tim Brouk, right, Indiana University

While the younger students assemble paper model airplanes, the teenagers learned basic electrical engineering along with the flight concepts. The girls' skills were built up, culminating in testing their airplanes' soaring capabilities outside.

Other lessons came in the form of learning the mathematics behind music. Alan Tyson II, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Music and Arts Technology, used digital piano and beat-making to show how math is used in music production. Whether composing or recording, having a mathematical mind could help produce a hit.

The girls also got a lesson in technology by supporting the production of a tween empowerment magazine, BoldlyU. This effort is led by Darla Harmon, one of the program's committed community partners. The students teamed up to write articles, shoot photos, and design the layout using Photoshop and InDesign.

Developing expertise in STEM -- and in life

Morton said her students come from all over Indianapolis to attend her day camp, but the institute also draws girls from beyond the Circle City. Campers from West Lafayette, Indiana, and even from Cincinnati are in the mix this summer. Along with the differences in schools the girls attend come different economic and social backgrounds.

"Throughout the years, we've had some young ladies come to us from very tough life situations, whether they lost parents or something else," Morton reflected. "It's about building that sisterhood and them knowing they have us here as well. We care for them."

Enthusiasm for STEM classes also varies with each student. Naomi Turnipseed, a freshman at Brownsburg High School, had the quote of the summer for Morton: "I used to hate math. Now, I just don't like it."

The quip drew laughter, but it also elated Morton, who has dedicated her life to getting more black girls to embrace mathematics and other STEM fields. If she's getting a teenager to upgrade from hating math to only disliking math, she'll take it.

"It truly comes out of passion for girls of color," Morton said. "I do want them to go into STEM fields, but beyond that, it's a holistic approach. I want these girls to be the best that they can be. Period."

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