Pollen Power: Exposing Girls to Pollen— and Possibly STEM Careers

Grad student interacts with a Pollen Power camper during one of the sessions.
Grad student interacts with a middle school student during one of the camp's sessions.

July 24, 2013

The 27 middle school girls who participated in Pollen Power camp July 8–12 not only learned about the importance of pollen. They were exposed to the technology researchers use to study it, and to female researchers and graduate students, who both taught them and served as role models. In using mostly women, Pollen Power organizers sowed this seed that they hope comes to fruition in these girls' lives: they too can follow in these women's footsteps.

PI Lisa Ainsworth
PI Lisa Ainsworth enjoying the videos the campers made for the final presentation.

Funded by a 5-year National Science Foundation grant, and sponsored by the Institute for Genomic Biology, Pollen Power camp intentionally targeted middle schoolers for their outreach. Lisa Ainsworth, Principal Investigator of the grant, explains.

"We chose middle school girls, in part, because that's an age when kids start to lose their interest in math and science."

Co-PI Andrew Leakey unashamedly admits that one of the goals of the program is to get kids interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). He agrees that middle school students are at a key age in the STEM pipeline—the idea that to meet our nation's need for people in STEM fields, we must get youngsters interested in STEM by exposing them early and often, so they ultimately choose STEM careers. Leakey goes on to cite research:

"There, we were really interested in groups that are falling out of the training pipeline to become professional scientists. And from the literature I've read, middle school was a really key stage where a lot of people lose interest."

Camper wears the flower she made for her hair.
Camper models the fiber optics barrette she made for her hair.

Why focus on girls? Says Ainsworth, "We wanted to target girls as well, because in lots of aspects of science, they're underrepresented—not necessarily in biology—but certainly in physics and computer science and some of the other sciences."

As for reaching out to girls, Leakey acknowledges that his interest is a bit more personal: "I have two daughters, so I'm slightly biased toward the interest of girls, I have to confess…That's obviously one group that we're not getting through the training program as far as we would like."

To pique the interest of the girls who attended Pollen Power, the camp exposed them to a number of disciplines, all revolving around the central theme of pollen. One emphasis was biology and sustainability, and something else most middle schoolers are interested in—food.

Andrew Leakey, Co-PI on the project.
Andrew Leakey, Co-PI on the project.

"The camp was really designed to try to show middle school girls some really interesting biology linked to climate change and food production, and all associated with the role that pollen plays in plant reproduction," says Leakey. "Because the vast majority of what we eat is the product of successful pollination. All of our food depends on that happening."

The camp's emphasis on technology is only natural, given the importance of some of the tools used to study pollen, such as microscopes, imaging, and computers: "But at the same time, to do that biology well," adds Leakey, "we need to image the pollen and use computers to count the pollen and how successfully it's germinating." Thus, he indicates that the camp also exposed the girls to how microscopes work, the physics of light, and computer science.

In addition to cutting-edge imaging and microscopes, girls visited the Pollinatarium, where one of the highlights was a sighting out the queen bee in a real bee hive; made flowers for their hair out of fiber optics; and for the final presentation, made "news cast" videos reporting on all they had learned.

Campers working on their fiber optic barettes.
Campers working on their fiber optic barrettes.

Were the girls impressed? "This is a tough age. Twelve-year-olds are a tough crowd," admits Ainsworth. "They're hard to impress at this age, and so you have to work pretty hard. But it's formative years, so it's important to get them positive role models at this age as well."

Thus, female role models was an important emphasis of the camp, to encourage the girls that they too could one day be a grad student or researcher. To build upon the idea of female students as camp counselors and instructors, Ainsworth hopes in the future to implement a model she coins "stepping stones." This would also include female undergrad and even high school students, thinking campers might even more easily identify with younger students.

"It's not easy for them to imagine themselves as my age," reasons Ainsworth, "but it's easy for them to imagine themselves as high school students, and so they can see themselves working in labs. And maybe they see an undergrad, and they're a little older, but they can see that in their future. And then you have the graduates as well. You kind of have the stair steps up to a future. That's hopefully what we can build into this in future years."

Cassie Wesseln, left, and some campers enjoy graphics created with special imaging software
Cassie Wesseln, left, and some campers enjoy graphics created with special imaging software.

One of the gradutate students who served as a role model in this year's edition of Pollen Power is Cassie Wesseln, who is working on a Ph.D. in Paleobotany. Invited to serve as one of the camp's counselors and instructors on the basis of her pollen expertise, she was excited to share some of what she has learned about the importance of pollen, claiming that the girls are "learning about a world that a lot of people will never know about."

Wesseln believes that the camp, in addition to teaching the girls about pollen, will influence some of them to choose careers in STEM: "I think it's interesting enough and important enough where all these girls will walk away at least thinking about, 'Hmm, can I become a grad student one day? Or can I go into science and study pollen?' It may not be exactly pollen, but at least they're seeing this biological concept and the tools we use to study it. I think it's going to encourage a lot of these girls to follow through into STEM."

Did the camp organizers hope to get the girls to choose careers in pollen research, specifically, or just STEM in general? Says Ainsworth: "Just in STEM. Just retain interest, and maybe the confidence that they can do it, and that it can be fun as well."

Leakey sums up the goals of the camp in a nutshell: "So it's an opportunity to present them an interdisciplinary science problem at a time when in their education they might not recognize the value of that, and then at the same time expose them to female graduate students who are good at this."

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: 6-8 Outreach, Pollen Power, STEM Pipeline, Summer Camp, Women in STEM, 2013

Girls enjoy the videos they made about pollen.
Along with other Pollen Power campers, the girl to the far left enjoys watching a video of herself making a presentation (see below) about the importance of pollen. The videos were presented during the final event on the last day of camp.

Girl making presentation about pollen in a video.

SOLIDarity EXperiences (SOLIDEX) through the Eyes of Children

What do children aged 11-13 in two countries think about solidarity?
Full Story

Students launch ASL STEM Vocabulary App Company

Students launch ASL STEM Vocabulary App Company
Full Story

Innovation, Inspiration on display at the Undergraduate Research Symposium

Undergraduate Research Week took place April 23-29, 2023, and culminated Thursday, April 27, 2023
Full Story

What would you like to see – 3D printers? Magnets? Solar-powered racing cars? Robobrawl?

March 28, 2023
EOH occurs Friday, March 31, and Saturday, April 1, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Full Story

Tour of Illinois’ Materials Research Lab through I-MRSEC sparks Franklin students’ interest in Materials Science

March 1, 2023
Students from the Champaign middle school had a tour of the Material Research Laboratory (MRL) in early February.
Full Story

Nobel Project’s End-of-Year Zoom Bash Recaps Learning

February 1, 2022
The STEM Illinois Nobel Project held a special, end-of-the-year Zoom event celebrating its participating students’ achievements.
Full Story

It’s not magic, it’s physics

January 26, 2022
In Franklin STEAM Academy, Musical Magnetism program makes STEM fun, approachable.
Full Story

Program prepares STEM educators to teach all students

November 30, 2021
This summer, a group of educators gathered to learn about engaging STEM activities they can do with their students.
Full Story

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program

November 11, 2021
Undergrads get a taste of research through I-MRSEC’s REU program.
Full Story

Goldstein’s Renaissance Engineering Summer Camp

November 1, 2021
Goldstein’s Renaissance Engineering Summer Camp Incorporates Art, Design, Mechatronics, and Mentoring
Full Story

TechTogether Chicago to Redefine the Hacker Stereotype

July 10, 2021
New workshops that can help inspire students to pursue careers in technology..
Full Story

Aerospace Engineering Launches Virtual Summer Camps to Pique Students’ Interest in Aero.

July 2, 2021
Design an aircraft then watch it soar after launching it with a huge rubber band. Build a Mars lander to safely transport a real egg, then test the contraption by dropping it from a second story window.
Full Story

Undergrads Experience Materials Science Research Courtesy of the I-MRSEC REU

June 16, 2021
Ten undergraduate students are spending the summer of 2021 discovering what research is like.
Full Story

MatSE Afterschool Academy

MatSE Afterschool Academy

June 14, 2021
MatSE Afterschool Academy to Introduce Students to Materials Science and Beyond.
Full Story

Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest

Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest

June 14, 2021
Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest While Researching Task Collaboration.
Full Story

Exposes Franklin Middle Schoolers to Science, CS

What Studying Engineering at Illinois is Like?

May 25, 2021
NSBE’s Michaela Horn Exposes Franklin Middle Schoolers to Science, CS, and What Studying Engineering at Illinois is Like.
Full Story

Jenny Saves a Convertible.

Children’s-Book-Writing Duo/

May 19, 2021
Convertibles and Thunderstorms—Children’s-Book-Writing Duo on Their Way Thanks to Illinois Training and Encouragement from Mentors.
Full Story

Improve Learning in Engineering

Improve Learning in Engineering

May 17, 2021
Liebenberg Espouses Mini-Projects to Engage Students Emotionally, Improve Learning in Engineering.
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

BIOE435 Capstone Projects

May 12, 2021
BIOE435 Capstone Projects - BIOE Seniors Use Knowledge/Skills to Problem Solve.
Full Story

Elani and Gonzalo shine a UV light on a rose that has absorbed a solution that has made it fluorescent.

Illinois Scientists Shine a (UV) Light on Fluorescence

May 7, 2021
What is fluorescence? What causes it?
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

HackIllinois 2021 “Rekindled Connections” With The Tech Community

May 5, 2021
Annual student hackathon HackIllinois with the aim of developing projects on current problems facing society.
Full Story

A Shane Mayer-Gawlik image of the Bridger Aurora, part of his Night Skies photography collection exhibited at the Art-Science Festival.

The Art-Science Festival

April 26, 2021
Illinois Art-Science Festival: Illuminating the Universe...from the Quantum World to the Cosmos.
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

Illinois Engineering Seniors Prepared to Change the World

April 22, 2021
Ready. Set. Go! Illinois Engineering Seniors Prepared to Change the World.
Full Story

HML 2021 Virtual Health

HML 2021 Virtual Health

April 19, 2021
Make-a-Thon Gives Citizen Scientists a Shot at Making Their Health-Related Innovations a Reality.
Full Story

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

April 7, 2021
I-MRSEC’s Music Video for EOH ’21 Plugs Graphene, 2D Materials
Full Story

Health Make-a-Thon Orientation

HML 2021 Health Orientation

March 30, 2021
HML 2021 Health Make-a-Thon Orientation Prepares Finalists for Competition.
Full Story

Andrea Perry shows Franklin students how to take apart the magnetic drawing board they received in their kit

Musical Magnetism

March 25, 2021
Musical Magnetism: Encouraging Franklin Middle Schoolers to Express Science Via the Arts.
Full Story

Carmen Paquette street performing.

Love of Science

March 9, 2021
Paquette Conveys Her Love of Science, Dance to Franklin STEAM Students Via Musical Magnetism.
Full Stroy

An Engineering Exploration participant exhibits the tower they built as part of the engineering challenge related to Civil Engineering

Engineering Exploration

March 2, 2021
SWE’s Engineering Exploration Outreach Lives Up to Its Name.

ChiS&E’s Family STEM Day

ChiS&E’s Family STEM Day

February 23, 2021
Helps Chicago Youngsters Progress Along the STEM Pipeline Toward Engineering.

Kathny Walsh

Kathy Walsh

February 17, 2021
On Her First Foray into STEAM, Kathy Walsh Acquaints Franklin Students with Microscopy, Haiku.

ChiS&E student

ChiS&E CPS Students

January 19, 2021
Illinois Undergrads Encourage ChiS&E CPS Students Toward Possible Careers in Engineering.

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

CISTEME365 Provides Year-Round PD/Community

January 4, 2021
to Illinois Teachers in Support of Informal STEM Education Efforts to Underserved Students.