Outreach project gives girls golden opportunity

David Hyland

Twelve-year-old Theresa Stanton watched in amazement as a rubber ball shattered upon hitting the floor, just moments after a University instructor dipped it in liquid nitrogen.
The experiment is commonly used in science classrooms, but it was the first time Stanton and other fourth- through eighth-grade girls with disabilities had seen anything like it. And it’s exposure to such experiments that coordinators say make an initiative called Project Gold a success.
“They did different kinds of tricks … and I’d like to learn the physics of the different kinds of scientific stuff,” said Stanton, who suffers from Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis which affects every joint in her body.
Project Gold, a 3-year-old University outreach program, focuses on kindling an interest in math and science among students like Stanton.
“That’s the basis of this thing,” said program co-founder and General College biology instructor Kimaerly Wilcox. “to help stimulate and sustain that interest so that they keep taking math and science courses.”
Wilcox said it is important to encourage interest in science and math among girls with disabilities because they are often excluded or discouraged from those fields.
“If they have any special education,” Wilcox said, “they get pulled out of math and science. There are often times that they don’t get to take the achievement tests that are often the basis for getting into advanced classes or even sometimes into college.”
The project was the brainchild of Wilcox and General College math instructor Laura Coffin Koch. It got off the ground with a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation. Organizers plan to reapply for a new grant when their current grant runs out this year.
At the University, General College donates the materials and facilities at Appleby Hall to the program.
The students, mostly suffering from physical disabilities, are chosen with the help of the Minneapolis and St. Paul School Districts as well as the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights Center. Project Gold Director Rozanne Severance said the program attracts students from as far away as Moorhead and International Falls.
During the school year, program organizers invite approximately 40 girls to workshops once a month. The workshops are broken into sessions for math and science demonstrations. Participants learn about everything from geometry to gravity to the Internet.
Project Gold enlists the aid of women in science and math fields to give talks and be mentors to the group.
While the students are involved in learning, their parents attend informational sessions about computers and resources available to help their daughters.
For Theresa’s mother, Mary Jean Stanton, Project Gold opened her eyes to opportunities and education/career possibilities for her daughter’s future.
Living day to day with her daughter’s disability, Mary Jean Stanton said she and her daughter sometimes lose sight of the big picture, like the fact that she is the only disabled student at her Minneapolis school.
Wilcox said the opportunity to meet other disabled girls is a crucial part of the program. Many of the program’s students are the only children in their schools with a disability.
In addition, Mary Jean Stanton said the chance to meet and talk with female scientists with disabilities was enlightening.
“Theresa has said that it was new for her to see women with disabilities doing what they chose to do with their lives,” Mary Jean Stanton said. “Now she’s seeing women in wheelchairs like herself having successful careers.”
Mary Jean Stanton said the program broadened her daughter’s and her own horizons and let them look at what possibilities the future could hold.
“It opened a door,” Mary Jean Stanton said. “One that she had closed before and probably me, too.”