Morton program gives girls a boost in studying math and science
MORTON — GEMS sparkle. Even during a pandemic.
GEMS is the acronym for Girls Excelling in Math and Science.
It's a club for girls in grades 4-7 run by volunteers from the Morton branch of the American Association of University Women in partnership with the Morton Public Library.
Club members get a hands-on, collaborative experience in STEAM fields during monthly programs held at the library.
STEAM is the acronym for an educational collective that focuses on the science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics fields.
"We want our GEMS girls to explore new fields, and at the same time learn that it's OK to make mistakes because you learn from them," said Morton AAUW member Judy Griffin, who has been the GEMS coordinator since the monthly programs began in 2016.
Griffin helped out at two pilot GEMS programs offered in summer 2015 as part of the Morton library's summer reading program that convinced the Morton AAUW that GEMS was a worthwhile endeavor.
Morton AAUW member Heather Thompson also has been a part of GEMS since 2015.
"GEMS exposes girls to fields they may not have known about and builds confidence in their abilities in these areas," she said. "It allows them to see themselves as scientists. And, of course, we always hope the programs are fun."
Griffin said GEMS presenters, also volunteers, talk about their careers as part of their presentation.
"We ask the presenters to talk about their career journey so our GEMS girls can see what they need to do if they have a passion for that particular field," Griffin said.
Stella Ritchie, 13, an eighth-grader at Morton Junior High School, attended GEMS programs for four years, earned one of five scholarships awarded to GEMS girls to the Millennium Girls STEM lab program hosted by State Farm in 2019 in Bloomington, and is now a GEMS volunteer.
"I love GEMS because the programs are hands-on, interactive and fun," she said.
She now has an interest in beekeeping because of a GEMS program presented in August by Rob Preston, beekeeper with Tippy Creek Apiary, north of Hopedale.
Preston showed the GEMS girls how to find a queen bee, how to take care of bees, what to wear when interacting with bees and how to extract honey.
"A family from my church (Liberty Bible Church in Eureka) has an apiary. I'd love to see it," Stella said.
Another GEMS presentation that caught Stella's attention was a NASA Mars virtual reality program taught by aerospace engineer Kim Stratton.
Adapting to the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic halted GEMS programs in March. The previous month, mathletes from the Morton High School math team worked with GEMS girls to solve problems, puzzles and riddles.
The March through July GEMS programs were canceled, and the December program, "Microscope Mysteries," presented by Griffin, has been canceled.
Still, the club has soldiered on with masks and social distancing measures in place.
Programs were held outdoors in Hannah's Reading Garden at the Morton library from August through October, and the November program was held indoors at the library.
The September program, presented by the Peoria Society of Women Engineers, was "The Science of Bubbles." GEMS girls made their own bubble wands and tested bubble recipes to see which made the biggest bubbles.
The October program was a pumpkin tower challenge, and the November program was "Wormservation," a 4-H program on earthworms presented by University of Illinois Extension educator Emily Schoenfelder.
GEMS girls were asked to predict, observe and analyze the behavior of worms in a series of experiments.
Programs presented before the shutdown included one on fossils by retired Bradley University professor Merrill Foster; DNA genetics by genetics scientist Lisa McCormick; magic by Char Gott, longtime member of the Society of American Magicians; and architectural design by architect Sue Rose.
There's a limit of 20 girls for each GEMS program.
"That's the most we can handle," Griffin said. "Plus, we purchased 10 microscopes in 2016 with grants from the Morton Community Foundation and AAUW Illinois, and that's one for every two girls when we use them."
Most GEMS programs attract the maximum 20 girls, and there's often a waiting list. But the numbers have dropped each month since there were 18 attendees for the February program. There were eight girls for the November program.
That's why Griffin hopes GEMS can get back on a regular schedule soon.
GEMS programs are held on the third Tuesday of the month. Girls interested in participating in a GEMS program should look for the link on the event calendar on the Morton library's website (www.mortonlibrary.org) or call the library at 263-2200.
So, how did GEMS start?
Heather Thompson said the Morton AAUW was looking for a way to impact the education of school-age girls at a time when "news articles highlighted a lack of women in STEM fields, and research showed that girls lost interest in those areas of study as early as the upper-elementary grades."
"We surveyed Morton School District teachers and learned there was a need and interest in a STEM group for school-age girls. We offered two pilot programs in 2015. Their success cemented with our organization that this was something we could and should do in our community."
Thompson said Griffin is the heart and soul of GEMS.
"Judy locates presenters, develops programs and creates partnerships that keep GEMS fresh and relevant," she said.
Griffin is a former teacher at Morton Junior High School. She taught there for 34 years before retiring in 2006.
There are 43 members of the Morton AAUW.
Founded in 1882, AAUW is one of the oldest women's organizations in the United States. It promotes gender equity for women and girls through advocacy, education and research.
Membership is open to any college graduate with an associate or equivalent degree or higher.
Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.