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Sparking Interest in Science

Research & Inquiry

Students lead hands-on workshops for girls

Prof. Lesley-Ann Giddings and students at summer camp

Published August 17, 2023

For a recent summer research assignment, Nitya Sharma ’26 found herself “pretending to be a kid again.”

That’s because the assignment that Sharma and three fellow Smithies took on involved designing and leading science workshops for girls at a summer camp in central Massachusetts.

The goal, Sharma says, was to provide a hands-on experience that campers "could learn from and also have fun with. A highlight for me was hearing their thoughts and questions. Doing this reminded me of why I like science in the first place.”

The four students—all summer research fellows in Assistant Professor Lesley-Ann Giddings’ lab—offered two workshops in July for girls at Camp Atwater, the oldest Black-owned and operated summer campsite in the U.S. Now owned by the Urban League of Springfield, the camp has served 60,000 young people from across the country and abroad in its more than 100-year history. 

Community-based workshops are part of a research project that Giddings has launched with support from a National Science Foundation CAREER grant award.

“My project involves looking at enzymes that produce molecules that could be used to clean up metal-polluted environments,” says Giddings, who earned her Smith degree in chemistry in 2005. “Part of that is doing outreach to get people to think about the properties of water and how those change with pollution.”

Earlier this summer, Giddings approached the Urban League with the idea of having her SURF students lead workshops during a portion of the camp season designed for girls. “We were excited to be representing a women’s college during those sessions, and to be offering workshops at what is one of the oldest Black-owned summer camps in the nation,” Giddings says.

A major challenge was creating learning activities that would resonate with girls ranging in age from 8 to 15, says Lily Weber ’25.

“I’d never worked with kids before and had no idea how they would react,” says the biochemistry major. “We spent weeks figuring out how to explain things to them and how to make things fun.”

The students designed two workshops for the campers. One involved using ordinary household products to clean up water polluted with minerals. “Some of [the kids] did an extremely good job at that, using strainers, coffee filters and cotton balls,” notes Sharma.

In another workshop, the campers used a microscope to examine bacteria and other natural substances that can be used to make paint. They then got to paint using different pigments. 

For Margot Hearne ’24, the workshop assignment “was a unique opportunity to tie the lab research we’re doing into something that is tangible for kids and can get them excited about science.”

“It was incredibly rewarding to see the kids enjoying the activities,” adds Hearne, who is majoring in engineering. “Some of them said they wished their science classes in school were more like this.”

Biochemistry major Varshini Anand ’25 says the experience at Camp Atwater has inspired her to seek out other science outreach opportunities through Smith’s Jandon Center for Community Engagement. “It’s important to get the next generation interested and excited about science,” she says.

Growing up with parents who are scientists, Anand was drawn early on to astronomy and biology—disciplines that “illuminated the world for me.”

A “debrief” the Smithies did at the end of their workshop showed some similar sparks had been struck for girls at Camp Atwater. 

“Before the workshop, they said they thought science was dry and boring; all about following rules,” Anand says. Afterwards, campers talked about how much they had enjoyed the hands-on activities.

Perhaps the most positive review of all?

“One of the kids asked if we were coming back the next day,” says Weber, with a smile.



Assistant Professor Lesley-Ann Giddings and (from left) SURF students Nitya Sharma ’26, Margot Hearne ’24, Varshini Anand ’25 and Lily Weber ’25 at Camp Atwater.