Summer STEM institute, day-long VU experience readies girls for careers

Lily Quach, left, and Marvara Jhala, center, get help with an electrocardiogram from graduate student Jaime Tierney.

Eighteen girls hovered around laboratory work stations in Stevenson Center on Monday, electrodes stuck over their hearts, staring at monitors tracking their vital signs.

“It says I’m alive,” quipped Lily Quach, an Overton High School student visiting for the STEM Summer Institute Day at Vanderbilt University School of Engineering.

The day is an offshoot of a two-week institute of the same name, held the last three summers at Harpeth Hall, a Nashville private school for girls. But the participants come from across the city, bringing a passion for the STEM fields and a deep curiosity about how things work, said Stacy Klein-Gardner, director of the Harpeth Hall-based Center for STEM Education for Girls and adjoint associate professor of the practice of biomedical engineering and radiology and radiological science.

On Monday, they toured the campus, heard from professionals in the STEM fields and worked in Vanderbilt engineering laboratories with Craig Duvall, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and a lab partner for the institute, and David Merryman, assistant professor of both biomedical engineering and pediatrics.

Stacy Klein-Gardner

During the summer institute, which drew 28 participants in June, girls solve real-life problems provided by the nonprofit Lwala Community Alliance in Kenya. This year, those in grades 9 and 10 worked on redesigning flood-prone approaches to a bridge leading to a Lwala medical center. Girls in grades 11 and 12 worked to improve a biosand water filter. One found a plant that proved effective in filtering out E. coli, Klein-Gardner said.

At the end of the two weeks, participants presented their work to be judged by local professionals. Their solutions are in Kenya now, where community alliance workers are reviewing them.

Klein-Gardner said about 60 girls have been through the summer institute. All were invited back for Monday’s event at Vanderbilt.

Quach and her lab partner, Overton High’s Marvara Jhala, said they’re both interested in the problem-solving aspect of engineering and would like to enter the field.

“It’s interdisciplinary, so you can study something from both health science and physics and combine those concepts into a career,” Jhala said.

The application period is open for the 2015 summer institute. Apply here.

Klein-Gardner said she doesn’t check applicants’ grades, but she does ask for a teacher recommendation.

“I want a girl who wants to be here, who wants to solve authentic problems and who is genuinely curious,” she said. “They don’t have to be interesting specifically in engineering. We bring in professionals from across the STEM fields.”


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6615
On Twitter @VUEngineering