On a cloudy July day, three cardboard boxes covered in aluminum foil, mirrors, and black paper sit outside the Donnelly Science Building. Inside the boxes are marshmallows that will hopefully melt despite the lack of sun.
The boxes are homemade solar ovens, crafted by students in The Next Step, a five-week summer program at Loyola University Maryland in partnership with Roland Park Country School (RPCS).
The Next Step is a two-pronged program for rising female sophomores at participating Baltimore City schools. Students spend two days a week on SAT prep and three days a week focused on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), fields where women are underrepresented. The STEM subjects are taught by science, math, and engineering faculty at Loyola.
Loyola’s involvement in The Next Step began in 2009 when RCPS was looking to partner with a Baltimore area university to create a math and science program for girls the summer before their sophomore year. Teachers were confident the initiative would be an opportunity to build on the intensive math and science courses the students took in middle school, making them better prepared for STEM classes in high school.
Loyola’s natural and applied sciences programs had been looking for a community outreach opportunity as part of their strategic plan at the same time, and The Next Step program was born.
“It was serendipitous,” said Robert Pond, Ph.D., director of The Next Step and associate professor of engineering at Loyola.
For the first time this year, the program had a focused curriculum on solar energy. After learning the basic concepts, the students were put into groups to build their solar ovens.
Building the oven was the fun part, said Ariel Egbunine, a tenth grader at RPCS, as she added a large round mirror to the top of her group’s oven. The black paper inside the box will absorb the sunlight, while the foil and mirror will reflect it, she explained.
She and her teammates – Shamontae Little and Daja Graves, both from the citywide Architecture, Construction, and Engineering Mentor Program – were also looking forward to testing out their oven with marshmallows and hot dogs, a tasty reward for their hard work.
With fewer than 20 girls in the program each year, the students get the hands-on activity and instruction they need to excel, Pond said. Especially in fields that are struggling to attract women.
“Business and government agencies of all kinds are crying out for women in STEM fields,” Pond said.
Math and science are often seen as “nerdy,” which may be off-putting, said Suzanne Keilson, Ph.D., assistant professor of engineering, who began helping with The Next Step program two years ago. This stigma may sway women to opt out of math and sciences courses in high school, when students have more freedom in course choices, impacting what they study in college.
Keilson believes women need to learn about the culture to realize it can be open to diversity, which allows for creativity and innovation needed in all aspects of STEM.
“If nothing else stays about the specifics of solar energy, they’ll get the sense that this culture is something I can be a part of,” she said.
The solar oven project was also an experiment for Keilson, who teaches an introduction to engineering course for Loyola first-year students. Creative projects are open-ended, and many students want to know the answer, she said.
Teaching high school students was also eye-opening for Keilson. The instruction that students receive prior to entering the University is important. Students are not blank slates when they come to Loyola and it’s important to know what kind of educational background they’re coming from to be able to live and teach by the Jesuit motto of cura personalis, Keilson said.
The program also helps the students visualize being a college student by immersing them in the culture. Being on a college campus makes the idea of attending a university real, Pond said. The girls sit in classrooms and labs, are taught by professors, and are immersed in the college environment by just being on campus.
“These women will wind up with paths toward college and careers that they may otherwise not have had,” Pond said. “We hope to be a catalyst for them.”