Becky Goetzke had five mentoring sessions with a NASA engineer this past summer. Not bad for an 11-year-old.
Becky just started fourth grade at Sycamore Trails Elementary School in Elgin Area School District U-46's gifted program. She likes science, but was still skeptical of the mentoring arrangement when her mom told her she was chosen from a lottery early in July.
Now Becky, of Bartlett, speaks excitedly about spinach DNA she extracted during the first week's session.
With the help of her mom, Barb, Becky blended the spinach with water and salt, breaking the plant down to its simplest cell structure. Then she added soap and a pinch of meat tenderizer before pouring in some rubbing alcohol to the green soup.
The spinach's DNA appeared as a white web in her bowl.
"We learned that DNA is in everything," Becky said. "It's like a code to tell you what to do and what builds what you are."
Both of Becky's parents work in the nuclear industry. As an engineer, Barb wants her daughter to explore science and related fields, but she doesn't want to push her toward engineering, specifically. Becky so far likes hands-on science activities and is already considering software engineering, but she also loves to dance and wants to continue practicing that art, too.
STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math -- have far more men than women, a fact that educators and professionals have been working to change in recent years. Closing the STEM gender gap has become a mission for organizations like NASA, which started the Giving Initiative and Relevance to Learning Science (GIRLS) program in August 2012. It offers a similar program to middle school boys as well.
Christina Gallegos, who got her start at NASA as a high school intern, served as Becky's mentor this summer. They connected by Skype once per week from July 8 through Aug. 11. Gallegos is an electrical engineer and works in Texas on the team making Orion landers to go to the moon, asteroids and Mars.
Besides the spinach DNA extraction, Becky's favorite project during the NASA GIRLS program was building a robotic hand out of straws, rubber bands and cardboard. The engineering side of her brain has already been brainstorming ways to improve the design.
The hand is supposed to be able to pick up an empty aluminum can. The fingers and palm are cardboard with rubber bands serving as joints and cut up straw pieces strung in four lines along the hand.
"It's a rough version of an actual robot hand they use at NASA," Becky said.
Robonaut is a mechanical astronaut on the International Space Station. Becky learned that it's just a torso now, but scientists are building its legs.
When Becky pulls the strings on her own robotic hand, the fingers curl up but it isn't the most effective can grabber. First, it doesn't have an opposable thumb. But she thinks it might work better, even with just four fingers, if the rubber bands could stretch more instead of being taped down so tightly. Or maybe she can use a more durable base, rather than cardboard.
Troubleshooting is a project for another day -- maybe even one for the U-46 STEM Fest.
In the meantime Becky and her mom are encouraging other girls to put their names in for the program. It'll run next summer in July and August for the third year in a row. Visit women.nasa.gov/nasagirls for details.