Club offers GEMS of knowledge

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New Highland group encourages girls to excel in math, science

By Kelly Cantrall

Marshmallows and toothpicks aren’t commonly regarded as school supplies, but they’re not often thought of as building materials, either. The girls of GEMS can shake those misconceptions on both counts.


Jessica Russo, a teacher at New Highland Elementary School, started a Girls Excelling in Math and Science club this year to encourage girls to enter career fields that rely on math and science skills. Russo hopes to use her platform as Mrs. Kentucky International to promote this type of education initiative for female students.

Fourth- and fifth-grade girls in the club — called GEMS for short — meet weekly with Russo to tackle a new project that takes problem-solving skills to complete. Last week’s project for fourth-graders tasked students with making structures with toothpicks and marshmallows.

Russo learned while working on a master’s degree many girls don’t pursue STEM careers — an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. Some research has shown this could be because girls aren’t exposed to those kinds of skills at an early age, through items such as toys.

Similarly, Russo’s husband, an engineer, had direct experience with the issue, as he studied and worked mostly with men. He encouraged his wife to start the club, she said.

Forty students signed up for the club immediately, Russo said. Shocked, she was forced to create separate meetings for fourth- and fifth-graders. It reinforced her feeling such a club was needed at the school.

“They’re excited about it, so obviously they’re interested in the content,” she said.

Fourth-graders Malaya Ignacio and Julie Keiter like the subjects and wanted a chance to learn more.

“I wanted to join because I thought it would be fun,” Malaya said.

Both students enjoy experiments they perform during meetings, including one where they had to build a weight-bearing bridge with just 20 straws.

“We had to learn how to (stop) it from falling and it was really hard to do,” Malaya said.

Juile said she likes the relaxed nature of the club that comes from it being just for girls.

“You get to hang out with your friends who are girls and there are no boys involved,” she said.

GEMS is a national program, and Russo said she hopes to see other local schools start a club. She won Mrs. Kentucky International 2014 in August, and this was the platform she ran on in the pageant. She is competing for Mrs. International in Florida this summer and will discuss the club as evidence of her promotion of STEM fields for girls.

No matter the outcome of the pageant, Russo said she enjoys hearing students talk about how much fun they have with the projects.

“You don’t hear that too often when it comes to math and science,” she said.

Kelly Cantrall can be reached at 270-505-1747 or kcantrall@thenewsenterprise.com.