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Program helps build girls' confidence

In a bid to boost girls' self-confidence and interest in science, MIT students last month ran a four-day program in which girls could come to the Institute, try their hand at science and meet some potential role models.

Twelve girls took part in the latest session of KEYs (Keys to Empowering Youth), a program created by graduate student Corinna Lathan and Rachel Ash-Bernal, a senior research assistant at Mass. Eye and Ear Infirmary. Two days were devoted to workshops on stereotypes, problem-solving and self-defense at the Montessori Community School in Scituate, where the girls were or are students. On the other days, they visited several laboratories at MIT as well as a hospital and a garage.

The motivational program is aimed at girls ages 11-13, "a really crucial time. That's when the stereotypes come into play and people make assumptions about what girls like and don't like to do," said Ms. Lathan, who is finishing her doctorate in brain and cognitive sciences and is also working on a master's degree in aerospace engineering. KEYs is intended to fight those often negative messages girls get by exposing them to science and technology and by instilling them with confidence to pursue those fields or any other they might choose.

While at MIT, the girls made holograms at the Media Lab with objects such as bent forks and screws, tested their balance on vestibular system apparatus in a biomedical engineering lab at the Center for Space Research where Ms. Lathan works, and visited the MIT Museum. The girls also went to the vestibular lab at Mass. Eye and Ear where Ms. Bernal does her research (the lab is directed by Dr. Conrad Wall III, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology), and to Chicago Auto, a woman-staffed garage in Cambridge owned by Boomer Kennedy. One afternoon involved role-playing as a means of studying health care legislation affecting women and children that featured a representative from the Women's State-Wide Legislative Network of Massachusetts.

The first day's problem-solving exercise taught teamwork as well as science, as when the girls had to come up with increasingly efficient ways of having a ball touch all their hands in the shortest amount of time (16 girls touched it in 0.2 seconds). Kid Power, a self-defense program taught on the last day by Model Mugging of Boston, was included "because it's important to have physical confidence as well as intellectual confidence," Ms. Lathan explained. The visits on the second and third days were made to places where their KEYs instructors work. Since the girls were already acquainted with their tour guides, they weren't shy about asking questions and consequently learned more. "It's a familiar face in an unfamiliar place," she said.

The girls enjoyed all of it, particularly the space lab demonstration in which rotating scenery fooled them into thinking they were spinning. The tire-changing lesson was also a hit. "That was awesome," said 13-year-old Colleen Keeley. They also liked the different atmosphere from school, where learning requires note-taking and worrying about tests. "Here, it's OK to share your ideas," said Amber Cheney, 12. "It's different from school because you're not forced to learn. It makes learning fun."

The all-girl atmosphere was appreciated as well. "Boys are kind of like a distraction or an annoyance. Some of them are loud and obnoxious," said Allison Howe, 12.

"I think we've learned more" without boys present, said 11-year-old Katie Kyros. "You couldn't learn half as much [in a co-ed setting] because teachers would be constantly stopping to talk to the boys."

Ms. Lathan had thought about starting a program like KEYs for several years, but it didn't become reality until she met people from the Cambridge Youth Enrichment Program at Harvard a year ago and they invited her to work with 13-year-old girls. Ms. Ash-Bernal registered KEYs as a tax-exempt public charity so it could receive donations, and the two recruited additional staffers Michael Halle, a graduate student in media arts and sciences, and Lynn Nelson, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science. With money from the Community Service Fund and various offices including the Public Service Center, the Office of Minority Education, the Office of Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs, and the office of Associate Provost Samuel Jay Keyser, she was also able to hire interns Jennifer Carson and Nicole Larrier, who just received their degrees in physics and nuclear engineering, respectively.

All but the interns worked on developing and teaching the sessions on a volunteer basis. However, Ms. Carson is seeking grants to allow KEYs to continue.

The first KEYs program was a two-day event at Harvard and Mass. Eye and Ear last August; a one-day program was offered during IAP at MIT. Next up is a session late this month for girls from Cambridge public schools. That group will likely include students from a variety of racial and economic backgrounds, Ms. Lathan noted. "I think they'll learn a lot from each other and challenge each other," she said. Eventually, she wants to target the program more to economically disadvantaged girls.

This first four-day KEYs went "better than I could have hoped for," Ms. Lathan said. "Every girl offered an insight. and in every activity, the kids didn't want to stop."

"Science was already my favorite subject, but now I like it more," Katie Kyros said. "I think I learned a lot."

A version of this article appeared in the July 20, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 1).

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