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The BOSS Lab for Female Scientists

A Proposal for a Boston Museum of Science Summer Short Course


The gender gap in STEM fields is thought to emerge around the ages 10-12.1 To help rectify this disparity, the BOSS Lab would offer fifteen girls entering the fifth and sixth grades overviews of four fields with significant gender disparities: mechanical engineering, computer science, chemistry, and astrophysics. Through presentations by accomplished women scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and hands-on, team-based experiments and projects, BOSS Lab aims to do more than simply retain young girls’ interest in science and technology. The BOSS Lab will assist young scientists in exploring their STEM interests and point them to the appropriate STEM opportunities to continue pursuing their interests, like FIRST Robotics and Science Olympiad. The proposed cost for this five-day summer short course is $5,355.00, or $357 per student.




The BOSS Lab’s goal is to expose girls entering the fifth and sixth grades to the following STEM fields with persistent gender gaps: mechanical engineering, astrophysics, computer science, and chemistry. The material will be similar in spirit to programs like FIRST Robotics and Science Olympiad that begin in early middle school, with the intention that the participants can pursue their scientific interests via these well-established programs. Additionally, the public school curriculum generally begins to offer advanced math and science tracks in middle school, the same time when the gender gap in STEM fields tends to emerge.1 By providing engaging presentations by female MIT professors in each field on what they do as scientists, fun experiments, and tools to continue pursuing STEM, this program aims not only to keep young women excited about science, but also to help them start to home in on the fields they might want to pursue in further camps, Science Olympiad events, or advanced classes.



According to the National Science Foundation’s 2016 Science and Engineering Indicators report, the gender gap remains prevalent in STEM fields. Table 3.12 in the report demonstrates that, while social sciences and biology report close to even percentages of men and women, women comprise only 11% of all physicists and astronomers, 15.4% of mathematicians, 7.9% of mechanical engineers, 35.2% of chemists (not including biochemists), and 23.9% of computer scientists.2 These patterns appear as early as high school, according to figure 1.10, which reports the female/male ratios of the class of 2013’s AP test takers. Calculus AB boasts an astonishingly even 49% to 51% ratio, though its slightly more advanced counterpart, BC, already widens to 41% and 59%. The largest gaps appear in Computer Science A (19% to 81%) and the AP Physics C exams (Mechanics: 26% to 74%, Electricity and Magnetism: 23% to 77%).2

The BOSS Lab focuses on the age group of 10-12-year-old girls in order to attack the gender disparity in STEM fields before the age when it first appears. Introducing the specific fields (mechanical engineering, computer science, astrophysics, and chemistry) before the general education system splits into advanced math and science classes allows young girls to experience the variety that science and engineering offer, and hopefully spark an interest. Involvement in STEM clubs, like Science Olympiad and FIRST Robotics, begins in secondary school. The proposed program will expose young girls to tasks and problem-solving skills similar to those that these organizations pose and develop, and a positive first experience will likely lead to higher participation in STEM clubs. Additionally, beginning after the seventh grade, numerous institutions offer camps specialized in one of the given fields. Providing an introduction to many fields allows girls to find an interest early on, so they can then pursue specialized camps and programs based on such interests. Overall, the proposed program aims to create a fun glimpse into the vast scope of STEM fields, a positive first experience that fosters a continued interest in science and technology.



The program will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for five days. For the first four days, the camp will be split into two sections: (1) an introduction to the given field and a presentation from a woman scientist in that field and (2) experiments and projects based on the topic of the morning. Table 1 below summarizes the topics and activities of each day. In general, the presentations from female MIT professors will include what they research, why they chose their particular field, and their professional story (how they became interested in STEM, what they studied in school, etc.). Each topic introduced is accompanied by a proposed speaker. The experiments will be conducted in groups of five, in order to ensure proper supervision and sufficient participation from each student.


Table 1: BOSS Lab Schedule

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
9:00 Introduction/The Design Process Scratch & Block Coding Chemistry Space & The Math Behind It The Briefing


The Mission

10:30 Dr. Peko Hosoi Professor Regina Barzilay Dr. Elizabeth Nolan Dr. Kerri Cahoy
12:00 Lunch Lunch Lunch Lunch Lunch
1:00 Building/Design   Challenges Make a Video Game Forensics Experiment Conducting Science   in Space Awards, Wrap-Up, Introduction to STEM Clubs


3.1 Mechanical Engineering

All STEM fields depend on learning strategies to approach problems successfully. There is no “correct” way to solve a problem, or produce a design, but thinking critically about a situation and consolidating ideas in a group are practiced skills. The first lecture will introduce the notion of a design process to the participants, which will then be tested in the afternoon by two design competitions: (1) building the tallest tower possible and (2) designing a raft that can hold twenty quarters without sinking. However, there will be budgets, time-constraints, and materials specifically chosen to induce (or require) creative solutions and designs. Each team (consisting of five students) will have a mentor (TA) to guide them through the design-and-build process.

Monday’s speaker will be Dr. Peko Hosoi, MIT Mechanical Engineering’s Associate Department Head. With an interest in unconventional robotics (work from her research group includes beaver-inspired wetsuits and RoboSnails) and a widespread knowledge of many MIT mechanical engineering projects, she can provide insight into a wide variety of interests. Additionally, as a judge for FIRST Robotics, she can briefly speak to that program and its applications in MIT mechanical engineering and beyond.


3.2 Computer Science

Given the age group of this camp, the most effective introduction to computer science is “block coding,” or a click-and-drag system that avoids the frustrating syntax problems of other coding languages. Specifically, the morning will introduce Scratch, a platform developed at MIT. Since it is free to download and use, the students could continue to explore and share what they create with others on the program’s website. The morning will focus on learning the new logic of coding, with group exercises along the way to encourage hands-on learning. After the day’s presentation, once again the students will put their learning to the test: they will design and code (and annotate) their own videogames on Scratch, with help from their mentor. At the end of the day, they will have the chance to play each other’s games.

Professor Regina Barzilay, Tuesday’s presenter, is a member of MIT’s Natural Language Processing Group, and the name eloquently summarizes her research interests. Barzilay’s work “enables the automated summarization of documents, machine interpretation of natural language instructions, and the deciphering of languages.”3 In addition, she teaches a class on machine learning and has received multiple awards for her contributions to the field of education. Not only could she speak to the varied applications of computer science, but her awards in education strongly indicate her ability to engage and inspire students.


3.3 Chemistry

Is there anything smaller than a speck of dust? Why does salt dissolve in water? Wednesday’s session will begin by asking the participants to ponder questions like these, before proposing solutions that introduce the fundamental concepts of chemistry. Through explaining atoms and the basis of chemical interactions, the morning program will suggest how the microscopic (both biologically and chemically) explains the macroscopic. There will be an emphasis on laboratory techniques and applications to forensic science, invoking the deductive reasoning and problem-solving from the first day of the program. After the presentation, each group will be given a “crime” to solve, including lists of suspects, and their mentor will guide them through simple forensic experiments like identifying fingerprints, running blood-type analysis, and utilizing paper chromatography. At the end of the day, each group will present its findings to the others, culminating in the answer to the group’s whodunit.

The research of Wednesday’s speaker, Dr. Elizabeth Nolan, encompasses many fields of chemistry, and a little biology (microbiology; biological, organic, and inorganic chemistry), making her an ideal speaker for this camp. Specifically, she studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance, focusing on the effect of transition metals in interactions between the microbe and the host. She could speak to the differences in chemical specialties, the wide range of research topics in chemistry at MIT and other universities, and her own research group’s current research.


3.4 Astrophysics

What happens when a scientist has to experiment on a planet with a toxic atmosphere and little gravity? How did the New Horizons probe take such stunning pictures of Pluto? Thursday’s introduction will emphasize the ways in which science changes outside of the realm of Earth’s comfortable, familiar environment, and the field that simultaneously describes and fuels this experimentation: physics. The presentation will emphasize the engineering, math, and physics required to collect all of the data NASA regularly uses, and it will offer a brief introduction to interstellar space, gravity around a planet, and the idea of a universe. In the afternoon, the teams will be given separate scientific instruments to construct for an exploratory mission to a new exoplanet, with specific constraints reflecting the observed non-Earth-like environment of the exoplanet.

Dr. Kerri Cahoy, the keynote speaker on Thursday, worked at NASA as a post-doctoral fellow, a researcher in the Intelligent Robotics Group, and an educational associate. At MIT, her research focuses on free-space laser communication and exoplanet exploration; she teaches spacecraft engineering and radio remote sensing. Given this background, she can speak not only about the challenges of engineering for space, but also about the work of her research groups at MIT. Additionally, there will be a trip to the museum’s planetarium, so that the participants can see parts of the universe they learned about that morning.


3.5 The Mission

Now that the young scientists have accumulated skills from various fields of science, they can “go out in the field” and experiment for themselves. Late into the night, a rival lab stole the BOSS Lab’s Nobel Prize, leaving behind a set of “impossible” clues and the boast that they hid the medal somewhere in the Boston Museum of Science. The scientists’ job? Recover the medal. There will be four different clues, which can only be decoded or retrieved by doing an experiment from each of the week’s fields, and each team will have a mentor with them in case of questions. For example, a clue might be hidden inside a balloon, and the only way to reach it would be to build a slingshot and pop the balloon from a certain distance away. The team that finds the medal first wins the challenge.

After lunch, the girls will have a brief wrap-up that will provide information on other programs the students can join if they enjoyed a certain field. Specifically, FIRST Robotics and Science Olympiad will be emphasized. Then, the proposed program will conclude with an awards ceremony, where the program staff will announce team and individual awards (an example of an individual award would be “most creative solution”).



The estimated expenditures for this project (totaling $5,355.00) are listed in Table 2. The proposed program requires two additional teaching assistants to ensure that each group of five students has adequate help and supervision. Considering the heavy emphasis on experiments, the TAs will need at least a week of preparation so that they will be able to give helpful advice to the students and to ensure that the experiments function smoothly throughout the week. The TAs will spend the morning time, which does not necessitate group supervision, setting up for the afternoon in the laboratory. The allotted funds for the industry presentations allow speakers the creative freedom, if they so desire, to run their own small activities throughout the presentation.


Table 2: BOSS Lab Budget

  Amount Sub-Total
Salary and expenses for undergraduate teaching assistants: 2 TA’s at approx. $120/day for 10 days (5 days camp, 5 days prep). $2,400.00
Industry speakers: 4 expert presenters at approx. $500 per each 1.5 hour presentation. $2,000.00
Total Personnel Expenses $4,400.00
Stipend per industry speaker: Max. of approx. $50 per presentation. If the presenter chooses to include activities that require materials, the list should be submitted beforehand for sufficient reallocation of budget. $200.00
Laboratory space: Includes basic chemical solutions, microscopes, Bunsen burners, beakers, etc. Provided by Museum
Classroom space: Includes a projector, computers (with free Scratch download), whiteboards, markers, etc. Provided by Museum
Laboratory materials: Building materials (items like wood, elastic, styrofoam, etc. which may be purchased at a hardware store), and specific laboratory equipment (i.e. blood-type testing kits) not provided by the Boston Museum of Science. $500.00
Total Materials Expense $700.00
Overhead: at 5% $255.00



Works Cited

  1. “The STEM Gender Gap.” Interview by Flora Lichtman. National Public Radio. NPR, 16 Aug. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.
  2. National Science Foundation. “Science and Engineering Indicators 2016.” National Science Foundation, Jan. 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.
  3. Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Regina Barzilay Named Delta Electronics Professor.” MIT News. MIT, 23 May 2016. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.


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Elyse Plachinski

Elyse Plachinski

About the author

Ellie Plachinski, class of 2020, is studying mathematics and chemistry. The youngest of four sisters, she grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When she is not UROPing or playing violin in MITSO, she can be found watching Parks and Recreation, playing with her dog, Max, or experimenting to discover the pasta recipe of least effort. Ellie began writing at the age of twelve, and she won a national Scholastic writing medal in 2014 for one of her short stories.

Subject: 21W.031

Assignment: Course Proposal