One local independent school program helps prepare young women for careers in the sciences and math.

In the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM, women remain sorely under-represented. In the United States, only 11 percent of working engineers are women, according to Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit workplace advocacy group.

For more than a decade, administrators at Garrison Forest School — a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade all-girls college preparatory school in Owings Mills — have been striving to change those STEM numbers. Their Women In Science and Engineering, or WISE, program pairs students with local university researchers to help spark the youngsters’ interest in the sciences.

Andrea M. Perry, director of the James Center and dean of special programs at Garrison Forest School. Photo by Daniel Kucin Jr.

Jmore recently spoke to Andrea M. Perry, director of the James Center and dean of special programs at Garrison Forest School, where approximately two dozen of the 650 students are active in WISE each year.

Jmore: Why is WISE so crucial?

Perry: The research shows two things: That girls thrive when they have role models and active mentoring, and that students in STEM need hands-on experience. So the opportunity to do research in labs with faculty and student mentors — the advantages of that cannot be replicated in a classroom setting.

How does it work?

Students spend 15 weeks two afternoons a week in research settings at Johns Hopkins University in the School of Engineering, the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Public Health and the School of Medicine. We have hit many divisions of the university. They are working side by side with the rest of the lab teams on work that is already underway, and they are also working on their own project designs with their mentors, which in some way complement the efforts of the lab.

How’s that different from the standard science course?

If you think of what a science lab in high school is like, the teacher knows what the outcome is supposed to be, the lab is contained to one or two class periods.

The work our students are doing is utterly different. They are creating new knowledge. It is failure-driven: They learn from failure, what they are doing results in unexpected outcomes. This is a long-term process of months and years.

What kind of research is it?

We have students doing a lot of work around nanotechnology. Students have been involved in a project to craft nano-cubes, devices you can barely see with the human eye that can be used for a variety of interventions. For example, targeting medication at a tumor rather than flooding the patient’s system with too much medicine.

We had a student doing work on Alzheimer’s research. They discovered that loss of a sense of smell is an early indicator of cognitive deterioration, and they treated patients with aromatherapy to forestall the onset of Alzheimer’s. We had a student who wanted to work with a big machine, so she was assigned to a civic engineering lab that slammed steel girders around in order to test the strength of steel under earthquake conditions.

Do girls experience STEM work differently than boys?

Girls think of themselves as either good or not good at math and science. They think you have to be naturally extremely gifted in order to go into STEM fields. So part of what they learn here is that hard work and perseverance matter more than native ability.

Girls also tend to be perfectionists, they have high standards for themselves, so it takes them a while to get used to things not working and to accept failure as a valid part of the process.

Advice for girls with an interest in STEM?

Girls are seeking careers where they can make a difference. They want to do good in the world, and there are few things more important than STEM. You can leverage your work to impact thousands or millions of people, entire populations. So I would encourage girls to think about that, to see where our talent can make the most difference to the greatest number of people.

Adam Stone is an Annapolis-based freelance writer.

Feature image: WISE student Ruoyu “Tina” Tian (left), a Garrison Forest School junior from China, works in the chemical and bio-molecular engineering lab at Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering with her mentor, research assistant Joon Eoh. Photo courtesy of Garrison Forest School

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