Girl Scouts get firsthand look at chemical engineering

STARKVILLE – Excited giggles and gasps filled the auditorium as blue bubbles spilled over a graduated cylinder onto a covered table at the Swalm School of Chemical Engineering Saturday at Mississippi State.

Senior Boston Rose was assisted by freshman and fellow chemical engineering major Ava Lucas to make “elephant toothpaste” to get a group of visiting Girl Scouts ready for the day.

The reaction included warm water, dish soap, food coloring, yeast and hydrogen peroxide. Rose explained the combination of yeast and hydrogen peroxide creates a chemical reaction that releases oxygen, which is shown in the form of bubbles because of the water and dish soap.

One young Girl Scout asked why it was called elephant toothpaste.

“It looks like toothpaste, and it’s a lot,” Rose said. “Elephants are huge, so they’d need a lot of toothpaste.”

That was just a primer for a STEM (science, technology, mathematics and engineering) showcase in which more than 100 Girl Scouts, grades kindergarten-12th, and troop leaders from Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee took part Saturday.

For Rose, it was an important way to show girls how cool chemical engineering – a male-dominated field – can be.

“In elementary school, I never did any clubs or anything that really exposed me to chemistry or chemical engineering, for that matter,” Rose told The Dispatch. “It would’ve been really nice if I had that, so it’s awesome that these Girl Scouts get to see that and get interested at a young age in STEM projects. … I go into my classes, and they’re 80 percent just guys. So it’s cool to see more and more women make it through these difficult programs.”

Saturday was the first time since COVID-19 the annual event has been back to capacity. Julie Jessop, associate director and Hunter Henry chair for Swalm School of Chemical Engineering, said last year there were roughly 40 girls present.

Even through COVID, the STEM day continued for Girl Scouts – only over Zoom with standard household items.

“The cool thing is that it’s all hands-on (experiments),” Jessop said. “They’re all made with household items, so these are (things they) can go home and do with their parents.”

The free event included sessions they attended – ranging from papermaking to making fake snow to creating their own chalk – the goody bags they took home, as well as their breakfast and lunch, Jessop said.

MSU’s student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers organized and ran the event, with three female members explaining to Girl Scouts career paths available with a chemical engineering degree, including the paper and fashion industries and environmental work. Then the Girl Scouts broke into groups to rotate through the experiment stations.

After the first session of making fake snow, the instructor asked how many of the Girl Scouts wanted to be chemical engineers. Hands of three 6-year-olds shot up.

“We hover at about 20 percent of our undergrads being female, so we’re getting the girls excited about going into science especially at this age,” Jessop said. “If they’re excited now, then it helps them get over that hump in junior high where they think math isn’t cool. We also work really hard to show the connection between engineering and daily life because we know what doctors do. We know what lawyers do, but engineering touches every day life, like diapers – they’re made by engineers.”

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