MIT students to encourage South Portland girls to pursue careers in science, math

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SOUTH PORTLAND — When Angela Marzilli was in school, if she had wanted to work with animals, a guidance counselor would likely have told her she should be a veterinarian.

But Marzilli, South Portland school district’s new science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, coordinator, said that’s only half the picture. A group of third graders in one the classes she orchestrated were working on a project to design animal toys.

“There are engineers out there who work with animals in totally different ways than vets do,” she said. “Those are options that these students need to know are out there.”

To that end, Marzilli applied to have two female engineering students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology come to South Portland through the MIT Women’s Initiative. The aspiring engineers will encourage young girls to pursue their interests through STEM education and careers.

STEM education aims to integrate those hard sciences in the classroom. Combining disciplines creates a more rich environment to learn each one, proponents say, and makes for more interesting learning experiences.

Marzilli started in the post this summer, and coordinates STEM education for middle school and high school students. Her position, a new one this year, is funded by a $225,000 grant from National Semiconductor, which has since been bought by Texas Instruments.

The Women’s Initiative is a student group at MIT that aims to increase the number of female engineering students through outreach in middle and high schools around the country.  Two students will give four presentations a day in South Portland and Falmouth – who also applied – from January 23 – 27.

Marzilli said that while educators have put a sizable dent in the so-called “achievement gap” between boys and girls in the STEM disciplines, men still far outnumber women in STEM careers.

“The focus is going to be on what – if you stick with science, engineering and math – you can do with it,” she said. “Among girls, and boys as well, there’s a real lack of understanding what options are if you stick with STEM education.”

The two MIT students will meet with groups of 30-40 girls at a time. In each session, they’ll give a presentation about possible career paths for girls interested in STEM disciplines and run an engineering activity with the girls, with the idea of whetting the youngsters’ appetites for science.

And while the visit from MIT is aimed at young girls, Marzilli said her job is to nurture an interest in STEM among all students, and to teach them their options.

In one class, she said, students are getting a taste of all four STEM disciplines via the construction of catapults. The kids are taught the engineering process of design, prototyping and testing in building the catapults, which is technology. They are learning the science of how the catapult works and use math to assess its performance.

Marzilli said the students have fun with projects like this but “once they start looking at college, STEM careers seem so mysterious,” she said.

“We’re working really hard to make this real and relevant,” she said.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.