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Women Empowered By Science Camp Launches Science Careers

By Sarah Bedford ’17, MA ’19

WEBS campers Persayis Horvath and Jevahnie Hernandez share a laugh with their four-legged lab instructor.

Squeals and giggles erupt from room 219 of the Cohen Science Center. Inside the “You Be the Vet” lab, Wilkes senior Morgan Tarnalicki lifts her two furry lab assistants, white rats Fish and Chips, from their cage.

Tarnalicki and Wilkes senior Bridget Regan, both biology majors, are running the veterinary lab, hoping to inspire the attendees at the Women Empowered by Science Camp to share their interest in veterinary science. Using the long-tailed critters and two pups named Bo and Derby is working: The elementary aged girls can’t don their stethoscopes fast enough.

Commonly referred to as WEBS, the program gives female students entering seventh and eighth grades the opportunity to investigate many areas of science through hands-on laboratories and activities. Now, in its eighteenth year, the program has expanded to offer opportunities for high school girls.

Two WEBS campers, Dallas School District seventh graders, Adriana Kopalek and Gina Pugliese, affirm the program’s success. The two first-time campers hope to return. “I find science really interesting,” Pugliese says. “There are so many types of science and ways you can learn it. It’s just really fun to do.” With their yellow draw-string bags filled with worksheets, lab goggles and snacks, the students-turned-scientists attended labs like “Wizards of Physics,” “Rainbow Density,” and “Neuroscience:  Brain, Cake and Icing.”

WEBS provide both an opportunity to explore the many fields of science and an introduction to Wilkes University.

“I first heard of WEBS in sixth grade when Deb Chapman (faculty of practice in biology) came to my elementary school,” sophomore Holly Jones explains. Jones has participated in WEBS as both a camper and volunteer. “Deb heard that I was coming to Wilkes and asked me if I would be interested in becoming the student coordinator.”

Her answer was an enthusiastic yes. “I had the job before I completed any college credits,” the biology major says laughing. She has been able to relive her WEBS experience when her niece, Raine Coury, a seventh grader at Schuylkill Haven Middle School, decided to attend the camp. “It’s really cool because we get to talk about it,” Jones says.

Although the emphasis on hands-on labs has stayed the same, WEBS has grown and transformed since it began some 18 years ago.

First WEBS Are Spun

Deb Chapman, faculty of practice in biology and director of the WEBS program, addresses campers during the opening session of the weeklong camp.

In 2001, a parent approached Les Turoczi, former Wilkes biology department chair, to find ways to involve local middle school girls in science laboratory activities at the University. That conversation spawned the WEBS after-school program which is still held in the fall and spring semesters. Fifty girls from participating school districts come to campus once a month to do labs covering various fields of science. Chapman estimates that 1,800 students have participated after school since its inception.

Chapman and Professor of Biology Michael Steele saw the need to expand the program because of research showing that young women are often deterred from the sciences.  According to a study by Microsoft which included a sample of more than 6,000 females from ages 10 to 30, over 75 percent of girls who participate in hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities outside the classroom feel a sense of empowerment. That finding drops to under 50 percent for those who only experience STEM activities in the classroom.

To offer more opportunities, the first WEBS summer camp began in 2009 with the support of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant. WEBS was just one element funded by the $1 million grant which allowed Wilkes to launch new initiatives to creatively engage students in biological sciences.

 “It allowed faculty and students to offer this outreach program for middle school-aged girls,” Steele says, who was the primary author on the grant.  

Since then, the support of community sponsors such as UGI and internal funding from Wilkes Student Government has supported WEBS’ growth. Twenty girls attended the first WEBS summer camp. Eleven years later, the number was capped at 132 in 2019 when lab capacity was met.

WEBS 2.0 and 3.0

Chapman never thought WEBS would have grown in such a way.  “When we first started, it was just supposed to be a one-year camp,” Chapman says. Soon girls were asking how they could remain involved once they completed middle school.

The solution was WEBS 2.0, which targets rising ninth-grade girls whohave successfully completed two years of WEBS Camp and wanted to return to assist current campers.. WEBS 3.0, which launched in summer 2019, has been established for rising high school sophomores through seniors.

Shealyn Marino, research assistant in biology, had been tasked with creating programming for WEBS 3.0,  including new lab activities for the older girls.

 “Several of the campers entering 11th and 12th grade are considering Wilkes for their undergrad degrees,” Marino explains. “Those students are interested in pre-med, chemistry, engineering and environmental science.”  

Sophomore biology major Neha Metgud worked as a student coordinator with Jones focusing on community outreach and donations. She started her WEBS journey as a camper in 7th grade and hasn’t left the program. She acknowledges the long-term benefits of the program—including a renewable WEBS scholarship to study sciences at Wilkes. Students who have participated for two years as campers and one year as a volunteer and then pursue a degree in nursing or science, are eligible for the scholarship.  

Life After WEBS

Chapman knows that the camp does wonders for the girls who attend. But student leaders from Wilkes also benefit. She says, “When group leaders that have been with me in the past interview for medical and professional schools or jobs, they are asked almost to a one, ‘What’s WEBS camp?’”

Ashley Wojciechowski ’19 served as a student coordinator for WEBS—something she thinks has put her ahead of her peers. “Not many college students can speak to having managerial experience before graduating,” Wojciechowski says. Now she’s employed as chief scribe by the emergency department at Geisinger Wyoming Valley.

Margaret Galatioto ’18 agrees. Galatioto has recently completed her master’s degree in physiology and biophysics from Stony Brook University and is applying to medical school. She became involved in the camp as a first-year Wilkes student and was student coordinator. She continues to offer assistance n in any way she can. “The WEBS camp has completely changed my life,” Galatioto says. “Working for the program made me love Wilkes… and I was able to form lasting connections with all professors, students, and faculty at the University,” she says.

Such comments reflect the program’s impact. WEBS students of the past, present and future o experience the vast world of science on the Wilkes campus, Steele says.  “Deb Chapman has created one thing after another to build this lineage exposing young women to science from middle school to beginning college.”

WEBS keynote speaker Megan Bucher Ruhmel ’09, center, blue shirt, poses with all the campers and counselors.

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