In 20 minutes, D'Jharea Joyce and her group needed to build a free-standing structure with limited materials able to withstand the weight of 11/2 boxes of spaghetti.
When their triangular-shaped structure made from spaghetti and marshmallows held — unlike others in the room, she didn't believe it.
"It was just suspense and surprise," said Joyce, 13, as her team won the inaugural activity in STEM Scouts program, started by Boy Scouts to encourage learning math and science.
When it began in 2005, her all-girls school, Frankie Woods McCullough Academy for Girls, 3757 W. 21st Ave., Gary, shifted its emphasis toward science and mathematics — encouraging girls to defy gender stereotypes and embrace science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields at an earlier age.
Historically, girls have scored weaker in those areas in testing. The school's goal was to change that trend, Principal Pearl Prince said.
Academic research provided from Indiana University in Bloomington has helped teachers identify why girls were often drowned out of math and science discussions at school — male peers were often more naturally domineering in a classroom, said kindergarten teacher Antonia Escobedo.
"They found that women as teachers ... were geared toward asking the boys more of the math and science questions, because they would have the answers, or the problem-solving techniques," she said.
To correct that problem, McCullough teachers emphasize problem-solving skills and ownership of learning, she said. "Just having that confidence and that was one skill they said girls lack."
A key would be for teachers to hold back and encourage girls to take charge and become more independent in class: "In doing so, then we can see the progression of their learning," Escobedo said.
As the struggling Gary Community School Corp. became the only F-rated district in Indiana last year, based partly on ISTEP test scores, McCullough is one of a small number of schools in the district that has consistently received an A rating in recent years.
The all-girls school has received the A rating in six of the past seven years. The Benjamin Banneker Achievement Center at 301 Parke St. also received an A-rating for nine of the past 11 years.
Escobedo has credited the Prince's leadership to embrace innovative plans and encourage collaboration between staff and even classes in different grade levels.
According to the American Society for Engineering Education, African-American women earned 937 of the 106,658 — or .8785 percent — of the engineering bachelor's degrees awarded nationally in the 2014-15 academic year.
Partly to help change that trend, the school's focus has been to encourage girls to embrace engineering and science concepts from kindergarten through eighth grade, according to Prince.
In addition to bringing in the STEM Scouts program — also in its second year at the Bernard C. Watson Academy for Boys — the school has set up a community garden through a Samsung grant and also has plans to open a planetarium in March, said science and English teacher Yvonne Lucas.
"I was really, real impressed with the movie 'Hidden Figures,' because I actually lived it," said Lorraine Johnson, 62.
Her granddaughter, eighth-grader Kaitlynn Hogan, 13, who attends the school, said she wants to become a neurosurgeon, inspired by former Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson.
Now a retired computer technician, Johnson said she was employed for years at Inland Steel and the Wrigley Company, working her way up from data entry to computer programmer, then project manager.
At Inland Steel, recruiters "were saying, 'It's hard for us to get a diverse group of engineers and computer science'" technicians, Johnson said. "They used to do recruiting at different universities and they would say, 'We can't find anybody, we can't find anybody.'"
"One of the things that I said to them is, 'We've actually waited too late'" to push STEM careers by seventh and eighth grades, she said. "At that age, they say, 'Well, I don't like science, I don't like math.'"
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