What gummy bears and tongue depressors were inspiring at this recent Miami University event

More women are finding their way into STEM careers, and Miami University hosted more than 140 female high school students on the campus earlier this month to encourage them to look into those areas. Part of that involved launching Gummy Bears into space and other exercises aimed at showing practical application of math and science.

Area high schools, including Talawanda, sent girls to the program which featured a panel by women in science fields and three sessions giving participants a chance to see practical applications of the four STEM fields—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Talawanda District Director of Communications and Public Relations Holli Morrish was on hand for the day’s activities and said the high school sent 14 girls to the program called Careers Involving Quantitative Skills.


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Lynette Hudiburgh, lecturer in the department of statistics and the event’s coordinator, said she hopes that by introducing students to STEM fields early, they will become intrigued and motivated to study a STEM discipline or continue to study quantitative methods regardless of future majors.

“The day is all about learning about opportunities,” Miami third-year student Alison Tuiyott said in her morning welcome.

Dr. Heeyoung Tai, an associate teaching professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Miami, served as moderator of the opening panel. Tai said she grew up in south Korea and came to the U.S. to work on a doctorate at Penn State University.

She opened with a reference to Donna Strickland, the Nobel Prize winner in physics last year, making her one of only two women to win in that area among 205 recipients in 117 years. She said only four women have been among more than 200 winners of Nobel Prizes in chemistry in that time.

“The times are changing. More women are recognized because they study science,” Tai said. “We have fun. We contribute to society.”

Tai said she had an older brother and sister and felt she had to compete and be good in school although she jokingly added science was one way to meet boys.

“I have a strong base in math, a logical way of thinking,” she said, noting she took five years off after the birth of twins and when she came back was asked to teach chemistry. “I fell in love with teaching.”

Audrey Short, a Miami undergraduate majoring in biochemistry, said she did “a lot of everything” in high school, except cooking, and when she went to college discovered following recipes was just like chemistry lab getting the right combination of things to create a meal and now loves doing it.

Thaiesha Wright, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in chemistry and biochemistry at Miami, said she has always been curious.

“The use of science helps me learning to plan and see options and how they affect me,” she said. “It shapes the way I think.”

Ann Hagerman teaches biochemistry at Miami and particularly likes teaching lab. She said she came from a family of scientists and knew from the fifth grade she wanted to work in biochemistry. She said her involvement in science has led to travel to many other countries and meeting wonderful people from around the world.

“Science has moved a long way. When I first came to Miami, I was the only woman in the room,” Hagerman said. “The barrier is broken. You can be a prominent woman in science today.”

Phyllis Callahan, now the university provost and former dean of the College of Arts & Science, has been at Miami for 31 years and holds a doctorate in physiology and neurology from Rutgers University. She said her research has been on the human brain and included work on gender differences.

“In high school, I always had encouragement from teachers. Teachers were a remarkable inspiration. It was not really a plan. In high school, I spent a lot of time reading and studying,” she said. “I am very evidence-based in all my decisions.”

Assistant Professor Andrea Kravats, from the department of chemistry and biochemistry, said she knew from her time in high school she liked science and wanted to make a difference with humanity. She said she originally thought about pharmacy but transitioned into chemistry.

“I use a science way of thinking every day. I learned how to collect data and find good sources of information,” she said.

After that, the high school students were led to various campus buildings where they had three sessions from among 15 topics all with an emphasis on the STEM fields.

Possibly the most intriguing title among those 15 was “Bears in Space” led by Lisa Werwinski, an assistant lecturer and advisor in the department of statistics. Participants were to launch Gummy Bears using tongue depressors and recording the distance they traveled, accumulating statistics on the length of flight for red ones versus clear ones and using a ramp set at two different heights.

Werwinski began by talking about “variability” and charting the information collected.

It was a fun exercise as groups of high school students collaborated on the launch, the measurement and recording of data.

One girl probably summed up the effort best when she said, “Our data’s all over the place.”

Some of the Gummy Bears were, too, as one just missed hitting Werwinski and she joked, “Extra credit if you hit me,” prompting one girl to throw one at her.

In the end, she told the students statistics help analyze data, but an exercise such as what they had just finished does not provide sufficient data for strong conclusions.

Another application of statistics was also offered in a session entitled The Geometry of Gerrymandering where Dana Cox and Suzanne Harper looked at ways of drawing legislative district boundaries to benefit one party over another.

They began by using a worksheet of the Circle Party and the Triangle Party to let the students draw the boundaries to benefit either party and then reverse the page and made it favor the other.

Using the actual map of Ohio’s Congressional districts, they asked for reasons why some were so large and some small and why some were in such unusual shapes. They answered the number of people in each must be the same, accounting for the size differences and shapes were from “packing” to get as many of one party together as possible, and “cracking” to split up potential voters for the other side.

Some of the other session topics included Introduction to Earthquakes, The Nature in Your Own Backyard, Become a Mapper: Humanitarian Mapping for Disaster Relief, It’s a Good Hair Day (Thanks to Chemistry) and Of Mice (and Rats) to Women: Understanding Your Brain through Rodent Models.

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