MIT brings ongoing engineering effort to St. Mary girls

For the past week, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology students have toured St. Mary Parish schools to raise interest among teen girls in engineering.

The outreach is part of MIT’s ongoing Women’s Initiative, an effort to educate middle school and high school-aged girls about the varied fields of engineering, career options, but also inspire them to think beyond middle school and their hometowns.

During the past week, MIT students Novalia Pishesha, a doctoral student studying biological engineering, and Stephanie Ihezie, a sophomore studying brain and cognitive science, visited with more than 1,000 middle school girls in St. Mary Parish schools.

The duo said they volunteered for the outreach program to help motivate young girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM fields.

“I like being a motivator to others and to help them see that they’re not at a disadvantage,” Ihezie said. “I hope they start thinking: ‘I can be bigger and ultimately, that they become engineers or scientists.’ ”

The college students ended their tour Friday at B. Edward Boudreaux Middle School, where they led small groups of students through a presentation and experiment where students extracted DNA from a strawberry.

“What is DNA?” Pishesha asked one group. “You know a blueprint of a building? DNA is a blueprint of you.”

She led the group through the extraction that involved smashing the berry in a plastic bag and then pouring a solution of soap, water and salt to help break open the cell membranes of the strawberry. Next, students filtered the mash so only the liquid poured into a cup. Then, students poured a solution of rubbing alcohol over the liquid, careful not to swirl the cup.

“The rubbing alcohol will make the DNA clump together,” Pishesha told them.

Students, like Kabreonta Colbert and Nittaya Howard, excitedly used a toothpick to gather what looked like white, opaque goo from their cups — the strawberry’s DNA.

“How many of you liked doing that?” Pishesha asked the small group. “That’s pretty much what I do. It’s like playing while you are at work and solving problems every day. As an engineer, you help to solve a lot of the things that are problems in the world.”

During a short presentation, the duo explained the various fields of engineering and career options in chemical, civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as interdisciplinary fields, such as their interests in biological engineering and cognitive science.

The bridges we drive over, the make-up the girls wear and the video games they play are all products of engineers, Pishesha told them. Engineering jobs also come with a starting pay of about $50,000 — another incentive to explore careers in the sciences, she added. As part of the visit, the college students shared tips on how to get into engineering school, like keeping their grades up, taking challenging classes and participating in leadership roles in and out of school.

“Before you get all these perks, you have to work,” Pishesha told the girls.

Boudreaux Principal Magdalene Drexler said she hoped her students were inspired by the visit.

“I’m hoping this helps them see that there is relevance in what we do here,” she said.