Bioengineering Their Future

Ten middle school girls explore bioengineering and innovation through a National Science Foundation–sponsored summer program at WPI.
August 05, 2014

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Much like the pairing of bases in the DNA molecules they studied in the laboratory, a group of underserved middle school girls from Central Massachusetts were paired, one on one, with undergraduate researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) for a week-long intensive day program called Innovations in Bioengineering.

Supported by a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant from the National Science Foundation and funds from WPI's Dean of Engineering Office, the recently concluded program was created by WPI biomedical engineering and business faculty members to give girls entering the eighth or ninth grade a hands-on opportunity to explore elements of biomedical engineering and the creative, entrepreneurial mindset that fosters success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Students chosen for the program attended at no cost to their families.

"Studies show that middle school is the key time, developmentally, to get students, especially girls, interested in science and engineering," said Kristen Billiar, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering at WPI, who led the laboratory component of the program and is the principal investigator for the REU grant. "This is the second year of the program, and I think it’s really proven to be a success. The students were engaged and enthusiastic, and that's the whole idea."

During the week, mornings were spent in the lab with projects that included studying the structure of DNA, bacterial replication, designing and fabricating prosthetics, and exploring the cardiovascular system. In the afternoons, the students learned about innovation, entrepreneurship, and creative thinking, and participated in exercises to boost their poise, confidence, and ability to communicate to groups.

"By pushing them beyond their comfort zones and opening their minds about the wonders of science, engineering, and how they could make a difference in the world, we help the girls discover what they’re really capable of," said Helen G. Vassallo, PhD, professor of management in WPI's Robert A. Foisie School of Business, who directs the innovation module of the program.

This year's participants, all from Central Massachusetts, were Delaney Rose of Millville, Karen Hou of Shrewsbury, Jaime Cook of Wayland, Mikaela Rivera of Webster, Abigail Karns of Whitinsville, and Esther Konadu, Rebecca Perno, Angela Rusha, Arianna Stratman, and Amoret Zamarro of Worcester. They were selected from more than 120 applicants from middle schools in the region. To be considered, applicants were required to submit a letter of recommendation from either a science or mathematics teacher and write an essay about why they wanted to explore bioengineering.

"We had an outstanding group of applicants this year, and it was very challenging to choose just ten girls," said Kristin Goppel, associate director of summer programs at WPI who administered the program. "We are already looking forward to next year."