Nurturing the Seeds of STEM

Sixteen middle school girls from Massachusetts and Connecticut explored biotechnology and innovation at a new summer program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute
August 21, 2013

In the morning they worked at the lab bench, paired one-on-one with undergraduate researchers from around the country and guided by bioengineering and life sciences faculty members. In the afternoon they were challenged to create, innovate, and lead by faculty members in business. Such was the intense, week-long experience for 16 local middle school girls selected for the new Innovations in Bioengineering Camp at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Funded by a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant from the National Science Foundation, the recently concluded program offered a unique opportunity for girls entering the eighth or ninth grade to explore elements of biomedical engineering, biotechnology, and other areas of the life sciences.

The girls worked on research projects that ranged from making and testing prosthetics to studying the effect of exercise on heart rate and blood oxygenation. They also engaged in programming that pushed them to lead and think creatively; they even wrote and staged a play. It was a mix calculated to engage their intellects and imaginations with the possible futures they might build on a firm foundation in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

“Research has shown that middle school is a pivotal time for getting students interested in science and engineering,” said Kristen Billiar, associate professor of biomedical engineering at WPI, who led the laboratory component of the camp and is principal investigator for the REU grant. “These are the years that students in general, and girls in particular, need to see how cool engineering can be, because to be prepared to explore it in high school and college they need to take the right courses early or they’ll fall behind. The one-on-one mentoring in our program by undergraduate women, who are wonderful role models, really makes a difference in the girls’ perception of engineering.”

The participants in the program came from Douglas, Harvard, Mendon, Milford, Natick, Shrewsbury, Sterling, Sudbury, Westborough and Worcester, Mass. and Stratford, Conn. The students were selected from among nearly 100 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.

“This is a great time in their lives to work with these girls,” said Helen G. Vassallo, professor of management in WPI's School of Business, who directs the innovation module of the camp. “Just when they are discovering themselves, we help them discover what they’re really capable of.”

For more information on WPI’s K-12 outreach during the academic months and summer, go to