Students at the Museum of Science and Industry's We Run STEM event on Nov. 4, 2023 made body scrubs, lip glosses and hair conditioners at a cosmetic chemistry station. Credit: Provided/Museum of Science and Industry/Steven Koch

HYDE PARK — Keirrah Ware, 13, stirred a small jar of bright blue shea butter-sugar mix at the Museum of Science and Industry on Saturday. She added oils scented like kiwi-watermelon and peaches and cream, creating a body scrub while learning about cosmetic chemistry.

In another room, 11-year-old Cierra Marshall worked with four other students to attach an empty paprika spice bottle to a pink rope. They took turns lowering it into a basin of water and lifting it up, showing off the effectiveness of their water sample collector.

And earlier in the day, at a booth featuring Play-Doh models, Meshay Sutton and Brooke Elliott, both 11, learned how corn gets processed into snack foods.

These were four of the approximately 80 girls and gender expansive youths from the South Side who took part in science-related team challenges during the Museum of Science and Industry’s first We Run STEM event. Students ages 7-14 roamed around the museum in groups of four to six, completing a scavenger hunt and filling a “passport” by going to five separate learning stations.

Margy LaFreniere organized the We Run STEM event. Credit: Provided/Museum of Science and Industry/Steven Koch

“The goal was really to build a sense of empowerment and confidence in young people in STEM, particularly girls and gender expansive youth who are impacted by gender discrimination, sexism, racism, classism,” said Margy LaFreniere, the event’s organizer and an education project manager at the museum. “We’re trying to provide a joyful antidote to those and a sense that young people can be themselves in STEM.”

To set up the event, LaFreniere sent invitations to various South Side organizations, including school groups and a Girl Scout troop. She coordinated the learning stations with five outside partners: PepsiCo, Building Bridges, Code Your Dreams, Current and NeuroMaker.

Building Bridges founder and president Shy Brown — who goes by “Dr. Shy” — organized the cosmetic chemistry station. She helped kids mix body scrubs, lip gloss and hair conditioner, all while teaching them about product development.

“It sparks that interest of, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there’s a side of STEM to this,’” Brown said, pointing out that showing children what STEM careers look like can encourage them to pursue them.

El Hadji Dioum and Janiel Ahkin Chin Tai, scientists at PepsiCo who led the food processing station Saturday, echoed Brown’s sentiment.

When she was young, Ahkin Chin Tai said she only realized she could become a scientist when she got to college. She didn’t have the chance to attend events like We Run STEM — so now, she wants to change that for children from marginalized communities.

“If we can get kids to start thinking about science and interacting with scientists, engineers and all of these different stages at younger ages, it can give them a chance to start exploring these careers,” Ahkin Chin Tai said.

Though the students are young, Dioum said they’re already asking deep questions about concepts like genetically enhanced crops. Seeing their interest in hands-on science sparked is why he comes to events like this, he said.

Students learned about river cleanliness from Current, a Chicago-based group that aims to address water-related challenges. Credit: Provided/Museum of Science and Industry/Steven Koch

At the end of the day, Kayla Allyson, 11, said We Run STEM taught her the importance of being brave.

“I just thought it was amazing,” she said. “I was surprised about what I was learning.”

To quantify the impact of the event, LaFreniere asked students to rank how confident they felt that they could become a scientist at three points throughout the day. She’s planning to tally the results later this week.

In the meantime, she has another way to assess what students learned: reading the poster where they wrote down their takeaways.

“My heartbeat is 97,” one note said.

“My brain has fireworks!” another exclaimed.

At the bottom of the poster, with stars around the writing, a third message said, “I can do whatever I put my mind into.”

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