Dianne Frances D. Powell
As a group of middle school students sat in a classroom, a European barn owl named Valentino flew around from one post to the next.
Valentino was one of the owl ambassadors that middle school girls met during one of the workshops Saturday at the Expanding Your Horizons Conference held at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.
In addition to Valentino, there were also robots, dogs and really old artifacts at the conference, which is now in its sixth year at The Woods.
“Expanding Your Horizons in Science and Mathematics conferences nurture girls’ interest in science and math courses to encourage them to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM),” according to its brochure.
Around 130 middle school students participated in interactive math and science workshops at the conference.
“The main purpose is to expose the girls to STEM activities, so they can see that these are fun,” said Dr. Anneliese Payne, associate professor of education at SMWC and organizer of the event, “and have an opportunity to ask women role models questions on a one-on-one basis.”
The workshops were led by scientists and mathematicians in the Wabash Valley.
In one workshop, the girls conducted physical exams on dogs under the supervision of Nancy Schenck, a veterinarian at Petcare Animal Hospital.
In another, they worked in teams to assemble robots, an activity led by Mary Samm, SMWC director of academic computing.
“It’s all about doing hands-on activities, real life stuff,” said Payne, adding that it has been proven that hands-on is the best way to learn.
The conference, sponsored in part by Duke Energy, Terre Haute Regional Hospital and Sony DADC, was for girls in grades six to eight.
Payne said it is important to start exposing girls to STEM courses early on because her research suggests that these students are “more likely to pursue careers in math and science if they know by eighth grade that they like it.”
And the students were presented with many opportunities to learn.
In an archeology workshop, Samantha Wonderling, a seventh grader attending Sarah Scott Middle School and eighth grader Cammie Lanctot — who is homeschooled — examined artifacts, which included a fish carcass and a piece of prehistoric pottery.
The pottery is over a thousand years old, said workshop leader and archeologist Karen Supak of Cultural Resource Analysts Inc.
The students learned about archeology and the use of the scientific method. In addition, they got to experience working with objects used by people who have gone before them.
“It’s a neat human connection to have,” Supak said.
These types of experiences are important.
The conference is about making girls “feel confident that they can do the math and science,” empowering them to pursue the career they want to pursue, Payne said.
Back in the classroom with Valentino, in a workshop called “HooHoo! Who is making that sound?” the students learned about the different kinds of owls and how owls live/survive. The presentation was led by Jennifer Cunningham and Sabrina Saylor of Wildcare Inc.
In addition to meeting Valentino and Mama, a screech owl, the aspiring scientists also got to dissect an owl pellet, which is made up of undigested parts of owls’ food that the animals regurgitate.
One student, sixth grader Shambly Sorrells, used a toothpick to dissect the pellet.
She found something interesting.
“I’m finding a lot of bones and fur ... like A LOT of fur,” Shambly, who traveled about three hours on a school bus from Northeast Dubois Middle School, said.
She carefully separated the fur from the bones.
“Look at this mini-skull,” Shambly told Saylor.
She quickly concluded that the owl that regurgitated the pellet she dissected must have eaten a rodent.
Saylor confirmed her assessment. It was a mouse.
Shambly said she loves animals and enjoyed being “able to identify bones and stuff.”
And her future looks bright.
“I’ve always wanted to be a veterinarian my entire life,” Shambly said.
Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or firstname.lastname@example.org.