Contributed By Sarah Massopust

As with many organizations, when the pandemic hit our STEM team at Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) wondered how we would fill the gaps of in person programming that had been canceled. Our department was so grateful for this opportunity to bring students together through the BRITE Program during this time of uncertainty for many middle school students and parents. With that being said, we still had our concerns about how impactful an online program would be. Will the girls be engaged? How will we create a community environment when we are not in person? How do we navigate technical problems? 

Reflecting on the past three weeks of BRITE, we feel like we’ve witnessed something truly special and unique in the world of virtual programs. We had an amazing group of about 20 girls who participated in the program and we watched each day as they became a tight knit group. We went from the first day where many girls were shy and unsure of themselves to a group that was creating themes for each day and laughing at inside jokes.

As a group leader and a former K-8 educator, I can say that I developed a bond with thesestudents and looked forward to our daily discussions. It was evident that the girls did as well. One of our participants said it best, “It was really fun and I feel like I connected with the other people in the MSOE program pretty well, even though I didn’t expect to.” The girls even started to say “Brite Girls Unite” and refer to themselves as group. Another one of our students summed it up by saying “I really liked how we did random themes and how we got to know each other even if we've never seen each other in person. AND WE'RE IN A GANG! A GANG! THAT'S SPECIAL!!!” MSOE girl playing violin

As our group continued to grow closer, our discussions became more in-depth and remarkable learning began to take place. The girls learned about a new topic each week, the Intersection of Art and Science, Danger, and Mind Matters. Each day the girls completed activities related to the guest speaker who was an expert in one of the above fields. The best part about the guest speakers was they were LIVE!  The girls were able to interact with them via Zoom, including coming on screen and asking them questions. Many of our girls were captivated by the opportunity to interact with female scientists. There were several instances where the girls went above and beyond to enhance their own learning. One example that sticks out is the volcano model.

The girls heard from Jess Phoenix, Volcanologist, and were challenged to create a model volcano. We were impressed that several girls took this a step further and conducted their own experiments by testing different substances and quantities to make their volcano ooze with “lava.” Throughout the last week of the program, we were able to collect some feedback from the girls which captures how much they enjoyed the program: “I liked the danger week speakers because they talked to us about careers in science that I didn’t even know existed.” “Art x Science was definitely my favorite week. We did so much and learned so much, too. I had no idea that there were people who combined art with science.” “I learned a lot from every speaker. They were so interesting and helpful towards the career I want to pursue.” 

Our key takeaways and advice for virtual programming:

1. You can develop a strong sense of community through virtual programming.

2. Including Live portions of virtual programming keeps students engaged and feel connected.

3. Sharing your stories/the stories of others is important to developing a sense of community.

4. If given the opportunity, many students will take charge of their own learning.

5. The first few days are the hardest, but once a routine is developed, it is smooth sailing.

6. The BRITE program is amazing.

When it came to technical problems or curriculum questions, the BRITE staff were extremely helpful and quick to respond. They were wonderful to work with!  We can’t thank them enough for developing this amazing program which we are hoping to be part of in the future. Thanks to the World Science Foundation (WSF), National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP), and The Hello Studios collaboration for making this program possible for our Milwaukee based BRITE gang!

Sarah Massopust is the STEM Programs Coordinator at Milwaukee School of Engineering specializing in artificial intelligence and high impact programs for K-12 students. STEM outreach at MSOE creates and supports inclusive, meaningful experiences for all students to explore the possibilities of their future, regardless of where their post-high school journey may take them.