Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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Workshops Meld Science, Art to Pique Middle School Girls’ Interest in STEM Fields

Inside the dark room, six young girls huddle around a green glow. The glow comes from a green laser refracting through a large crystal that redirects beams to bounce off several carefully positioned small mirrors. A fog, produced by a hand-made machine that one girl continuously thumps, makes the beams more visible; the girls take digital pictures, adjusting the crystal or the laser to create a new shot.

Their enthusiasm is audible – besides the beat of the fog machine, the girls’ exclamations fill the smoky green darkness as they move around, testing new angles with their cameras to get the perfect photograph. Afterward, in a brightly lit hallway, the girls talk excitedly about the images they captured before moving on to the next workshop. 

The laser refraction workshop was one of several labs that local eighth-grade girls participated in Saturday as part of a one-day program, "Photographing Physics: The Art of the Scientific Image." The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia and U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science hosted the event in conjunction with the museum’s ongoing exhibition, “Making Science Visible: The Photography of Berenice Abbott.”

Abbott was an accomplished photographer who brought her artistic skills to capturing images for science textbooks, illustrating things like the functions of magnets, prisms and lasers. The exhibition features her work from the museum’s collection, seeking to explore the relationship between science and art through her images.

The exhibition, on view through Dec. 16, is co-curated by Hannah Rogers, a lecturer in the Engineering School’s Department of Engineering and Society, and Worthy Martin, an associate professor of computer science. Since it opened in September, Rogers and Martin have organized lunchtime talks and tours to share Abbott’s scientific and artistic vision with the public, though Saturday’s event centered on an even more specific goal.

“Photographing Physics” aimed to boost middle school girls’ interest in the so-called “STEM” fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – through hands-on, artistic workshops and by combining scientific experiments with photography.

“We have a hard time getting girls to go into engineering careers, in part because of the emphasis on ‘geekiness,’ which isn’t attractive to young girls,” Rogers said. “We think a hands-on approach and emphasis on the creative, constructive side of engineering will be more attractive to them.”

The 23 girls selected to participate came from middle schools in the Charlottesville-Albemarle area and were nominated by their science teachers and school principals for having enthusiasm for science and a potential for academic excellence.

The day began with a tour of the Abbott exhibition, followed by a tour of the engineering labs and presentations by graduate students on their areas of research. The girls then broke off into groups and rotated around to different Abbott-inspired activities, where they learned about modulating frequencies, laser refraction, paleontology, and optics and light, and captured these properties on digital cameras.

The workshops were mostly physics-based and led by students from Rogers’ undergraduate course, “Intersections of Art and Science,” an independent study in the Engineering School. Rick Stillings, an information technology specialist in the computer science department, also volunteered his time to lead a workshop, teaching the girls how to compose light paintings. During the hourlong workshops, the girls emulated Abbott’s work, constructing staged images that artistically revealed scientific properties. 

At another station, the girls created images and patterns with sand by modulating frequencies on metal plates. The workshops also aimed to show the versatility and multiple applications of science.

“Whatever passion you have, you can apply science to it,” said fourth-year student Chris Jones, who taught the girls about optics through constructing a room-sized pinhole camera. 

Participants showed off their work at the end of the program, presenting the pictures their groups took at each activity to the other girls and a number of family members who also attended.

Lillian Encarnation of Burley Middle School, whose favorite subjects in school are art and science, said the program was exciting. “It’s two fun things combined together, and this makes me want to do even more,” she said.

Post-workshop surveys showed that more than 90 percent of the girls described the science activities as fun or interesting, and that more than half reported an interest in a science or engineering career.

“If they just go away thinking that engineering is fun, then that’s good enough,” Rogers said. 

— By Lisa Kessler

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