Middle school girls unravel the secrets of DNA at day camp

Photo by Sue Suchyta. Pooja Kannappan (left), 10, of West Bloomfield, and Diana Rustom, 11, of Dearborn, with high school assistants Joanna Garrett, 16, and Alicia Erickson, 16, both of Livonia, look at their cheek cells under a microscope during a DNA-themed day camp for middle school girls June 20 at Henry Ford College.

Photo by Sue Suchyta. Pooja Kannappan (left), 10, of West Bloomfield, and Diana Rustom, 11, of Dearborn, with high school assistants Joanna Garrett, 16, and Alicia Erickson, 16, both of Livonia, look at their cheek cells under a microscope during a DNA-themed day camp for middle school girls June 20 at Henry Ford College.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – In addition to viewing their own cells under a microscope, local middle school girls are getting a close-up look at future science careers from professional women working in the field.

The day camp, “It’s in the genes: Unraveling DNA’s secrets” offered last week at Henry Ford College, was targeted at middle school girls because their age group has shown a marked decline in interest in science.

Cheryl Garrett, an HFC biology instructor, said middle school is about the time girls start to move away from science, and she wanted to create a small group environment where middle school girls, with female high school mentors, could explore genetics, molecular biology, and DNA to get them excited about science.

“The dynamics are different just having all girls, and I think it really works well,” Garrett said. “It gives the girls a chance to feel like if they have an interest in science, they are not alone. They have now this camaraderie among lots of girls who get together and (say), ‘Hey, this is cool!’”

The camp includes hands-on activities and lab work highlighting cell structure and DNA function, as well as DNA’s role in genetics, health, disease, biotechnology and forensics.

Christy Ward, who works in the biology department at HFC, developed labs specifically for the day camp.

Garrett said women working in science, technology, engineering and math fields visit the day camp and describe career paths in different fields.

Carolyn MacKenzie, 16, of Livonia, who volunteered as a mentor last summer, said teaching the camp topics to the middle school participants helps reinforce her own comprehension of the material.

She said all-girl camps are an advantage because society conditions women to defer to men.

“It’s a lot easier here – everyone can have a voice, and nobody is trying to defer,” MacKenzie said. “I think that’s nice.”

She said the participants have enjoyed the microscope work.

“I think it is kind of cool to (have) something you cannot see with the naked eye, you get to look at it through this weirdo machine, and suddenly you can see it,” MacKenzie said. “It looks honestly pretty big. But, again, you look back at the slide, ‘I can’t see anything!’ and I just think that is a really cool thing.”

Chrystal Wiredu, 16, of Livonia said she volunteered at the camp to share her penchant for biology with younger girls.

She said having an all-girl camp also opens the lines of communication between the participants.

“They think of things that I wouldn’t normally think of,” Wiredu said. “It’s just interesting to see their point of view, since I was there not too long ago.”

A desire to learn more about genetics and DNA prompted Diksha Iyer, 11, of Dearborn to attend the camp.

She said seeing her own cheek cells, and later pond water under the microscope was fascinating.

“We saw things that were actually moving,” she said of the pond water. “There were like these little creatures, and mine looked like they were actually fighting each other, so it was like really weird.”
She said the participants also saw an interesting movie about white blood cells.

“It’s been a really cool experience so far, and it’s only my first day,” Iyer said. “You’re able to see things that you are not really able to see at school usually because you don’t learn about DNA and genetics until you are way older.”

Chiara Cascardo, 12, of Dearborn said the day camp expands on things she had begun to learn in a hands-on “Project Lead the Way” class at Dearborn’s Science,Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Middle School. That class focused on topics like engineering and bio-medical engineering. The STEM middle school is at the Dearborn Public School’s Dearborn Heights campus, 22586 Ann Arbor Trail.

Aspiring veterinarian Carolyn Roderique, 13, of Plymouth said science class is her favorite subject after band, and she appreciates the lab equipment and technology available to the day camp participants.

“They have really good technology here, so it’s not really something I would do at school,” she said. “There’s a lot more stuff, and it’s more interesting than what we do in school.”

She said meeting adults who work in the science field, and learning about what they do was also interesting.

Discovering new things through science appeals to Destiny Allen, 13, of Detroit, who said she enjoys meeting new people at the camp who share her interests.

She said seeing the microscopic creatures in pond water under the microscope earlier in the day was a fascinating opportunity for her.

“I saw a little insect in here,” Allen said. “It was orange, and it was wiggly, and you could almost see a face, and it was just wiggling around everywhere. It was creepy but fun to look at.”

Having opportunities for hands-on learning in science in really important, Garrett said.

“That’s how students get excited about science,” Garrett said. “I really encourage people in the summertime to look for opportunities like this. Henry Ford College has lots of different opportunities. It’s just really important to expose young people to hands-on learning and hands-on science, and summer is a great time to do it.”

Elizabeth Rutherford, manager of HFC’s collegiate partnerships, said camps like this are important to get students ready for careers that will be available to them when they are ready to work.

“It’s important, I think, to find out what you do want to do, and maybe even more important, find out what you don’t want to do,” Rutherford said. “This is a good way to explore that.”

Rutherford said she hopes the girls’ enthusiasm and self-confidence doesn’t diminish.

“Girls seem to lose that in middle school, and confidence takes a nose dive,” she said. “So I hope they can keep their ‘wonder women’ and continue to be awesome and do great things.”