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Girls give science a closer look

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Eleven-year-old Scarlet Ruiz hopes to turn her love of animals into a career as a veterinarian.

Ananya Ramesh, 9, loves playing outdoors and reading adventure stories. As a botanist, she hopes to create her own outdoor adventures while saving lives with her discoveries.

Eight-year-old Impana Gopinath wants to use science to help her solve mysteries as a detective.

“I think life is meaningless without science,” says Impana, a student at Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy.

Those are the kind of dreams Project Scientist Academy, a new four-week summer camp at Queens University of Charlotte, is trying to nourish. Founder Sandy Marshall figures if America needs more scientists, sparking the interest of young girls is a great place to start.

“I wanted to be a doctor and I dropped out because of organic chemistry,” says Marshall, who instead went on to work with nonprofits, becoming executive director of the NASCAR Foundation. That work led her to explore STEM education – science, technology, engineering and math – and realize the shortage of women in the field.

Around the Charlotte region, educators and camps are offering summer programs that emphasize the fun of hands-on exploration. Marshall decided to join the STEM effort by creating her own nonprofit, Project Scientist. It started two years ago with small summer programs conducted in her own guest house. This year she’s using the new science building at Queens to offer the camp for girls ages 4 to 12. Some parents are paying $375 a week, while Duke Energy and the NASCAR Foundation are providing scholarships to talented girls from Collinswood Language Academy.

No sooner did STEM work its way into the vocabulary than some educators started talking about STEAM, adding arts to the equation. Marshall’s camp demonstrates how creative and logical approaches to learning can spark exploration.

This week the girls have been learning about John Lawson, a British naturalist who explored Carolinas rivers in 1700.

Grace Pedroza, a 10-year-old Collinswood student, was in awe that Lawson paddled a canoe upstream: “It’s really hard, and it’s a long river.”

The girls took nature hikes and visited the Catawba Indian reservation to learn more about the landscape and Native American culture that Lawson would have encountered.

Brianna Smith, artistic director of Taproot Ensemble theater company, helped the girls create skits to dramatize Lawson’s adventures.

“The arts can help solidify and process the information they’re getting,” says Smith, a former teacher. Besides, she adds, “it can be a lot of fun.”

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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