Amber Hu

The classrooms of Sloane Physics Laboratory buzzed on Saturday with laughter and excitement, as more than 160 middle school girls competed to see who could engineer the most stable boat.

The young scientists came to Yale from schools around New Haven as part of the Girls’ Science Investigations program, a free program offered by the Office of New Haven and State Affairs to empower young women interested in science and help them succeed in STEM careers. The program was founded in 2007 by Bonnie Fleming, a Yale physics professor who now serves as the program’s co-director along with Rona Ramos GRD ’10, a physics lecturer. Saturday’s session, “The Floating World,” was the first of four day-long workshops and focused on concepts such as density and buoyancy.

“What we’re trying to do is show [young girls] that they can do science and also to show them the diversity of people who do science,” GSI volunteer teacher Bridget Hegarty GRD ’19 said. “We’re hoping to get them to imagine themselves as scientists.”

The morning featured two 70-minute classroom sessions focused on the dynamics of flotation and pressure. In the first, students hypothesized and tested whether various objects would float or sink, designed boats using aluminum foil and combined liquids with different densities to see whether they would mix. In the second, they explored the concept of pressure using gas bubbles, Cartesian divers and more.

One student in the program, Amanda Kanlong, said the program gave her a better understanding of science topics.

“I like that I can see what’s actually happening,” she said. “We learn it at school, but … it just really makes more sense here and it’s really interesting.”

One of the goals of the program is to “humanize scientists” to the program’s participants by allowing them to interact with women in science, Ramos explained. In turn, she hopes the students are able to imagine themselves as engineers, researchers, doctors and teachers. She added that the GSI curriculum is not based on specific learning goals, but rather designed to give students the opportunity to do exciting activities that are not part of traditional science classes, potentially due to budget or time constraints.

Ramos added that the middle school years are an especially important time for the kind of outreach the program provides.

“The reason that we target this particular group is because this is the age where girls start losing interest in science,” she said. “Before that, researchers find that the interest [between genders] is matched in terms of how excited kids are about science. At this age, for whatever reason, this is the age where girls start losing interest.”

The volunteers who run the program include high school, undergraduate and graduate students.

According to Maria Parente GRD ’07, Yale’s coordinator of community programs in sciences, the program serves both the New Haven community and the University community by giving Yale students the opportunity to teach science classes and interact with professionals in science. She added that some of the program’s graduates return as high school volunteers and go on to study STEM in college.

One volunteer, graduate student Elise Bullock GRD ’22, said she volunteered in order to give young girls the opportunity to have meaningful experiences in science.

“As a girl growing up, I didn’t feel like I had a whole lot of meaningful exposure to STEM,” she said. “When I try to volunteer now, I try to help girls understand that science is fun … I want them to get excited about science as a subject.”

The program’s next session, “The Material World,” will be held on Feb. 17.

Niki Anderson |