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Seventh grade girls in Penn State York's "Sparkling with Chemistry" workshop poured chlorides of copper, sodium and strontium to add color to a mix of sugar, magnesium and potassium chlorate, creating their own fireworks.

“OK, so now it’s your turn to be creative,” said chemistry lecturer Mary Ritchey.

Eyes widened as the girls tested different options, watching their flames burn bright for a few seconds in red and blue-purple tones before extinguishing.

When asked if she liked the experiment, Eastern York Middle School student Savannah Campbell, 13, gave an enthusiastic, "yes!"

The workshop was part of an all-day event held each spring at Penn State York — this year on May 10 — and one example of growing efforts to expand outreach in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics to middle school girls.

Recent research shows that interest in STEM begins to drop off at that age for girls.

Thirty-one percent of middle school girls don't believe coding and programming jobs are "for them," according to a 2018 study of more than 6,000 U.S. girls and women from ages 10 to 30 done by Microsoft in partnership with KRC Research.

"In high school, that percentage jumps up to 40. By the time they’re in college, 58 percent of girls count themselves out of these jobs,” Microsoft explained in a company article.

Microsoft found similar results in its European study a year earlier, and an excerpt from a Girl Scouts of the USA/Girl Scout Research Institute 2012 report also asserted that interest dwindles in middle school.

“The thought process is by the time they’re in high school they’ve already made their decisions about what they think they want to do,” Ritchey said. “We want to try and get them before they’ve made up their mind.”

In York County, schools and communities are making an effort to include STEM in these early years.

Dover Area School District recently highlighted its elementary STEM labs that include 3-D pens and coding robots as well as a high school tech team — which also created its own website. Northeastern School District showcased middle school students' use of electronic portfolios to support career exploration.

Community team TechFire Robotics of York and Spring Grove Area School District rocketry teams also are working to recruit younger students.

More: York County robotics team win shows what STEM can do

More: Spring Grove advances to rocketry nationals with rookie team

Penn State York Instructional Support Team faculty member Suzanne Gladfelter was ahead of her time when she started Pathways, said college spokeswoman Barbara Dennis. 

Now in its 23rd year, it's an "extremely coveted day," said event coordinator Jan Martin, adding that some schools have major competitions based on submitted essays, GPAs or interviews to decide which eight to 10 girls to bring. 

“I like how they get excited,” said Penn State biology major Tasha Strickler, 20, wh added that she never did anything like this in seventh grade.

Four years ago, art was added to the event, which reflects the evolution of STEM.

"That creative energy really supports the scientific mission," Martin said, adding that  mathematicians, scientists and technicians have come to value how it impacts their fields.

In the U.S. Microsoft study, 91% of girls in grades 5 to 12 said they were creative, and 72% said they valued a job that helps the world. They did not think STEM jobs had much of these qualities, but their viewpoints shifted significantly after they were shown examples.

Girl Scouts in the Heart of Pennsylvania recently expanded its mobile STEM program to include art, bringing the program to York City schools so elementary students can participate in hands-on learning. The school district also has its own STEAM academy, which begins in third grade.

More: Girl Scouts, students now have access to STEAM mobile

More: PHOTOS: Edgar Fahs Smith STEAM Academy begins their Spring Neighborhood Clean-up

One major roadblock to women in STEM is their perception of gender inequality.

The gender gap is "well-formed" in engineering and technology by high school, with only 3%  of high school girls versus 31% of boys reporting an interest in the subject in 2014, according to the 2015 U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index.

According to the GSRI study, some girls underperform because of stereotypes that they are not as good as boys. But research shows exposure to hands-on activities, female role models and encouragement from parents and teachers goes a long way, Microsoft shows.

Manufacturers are realizing student visualization at that age is crucial to making career decisions, and getting them access to companies earlier was one focus at a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing on workforce and technical education  in January.

More: Middle school outreach, apprenticeships needed for tech education

Up until seventh grade, there’s not a focus on science and social studies, so students are nervous at first because they don't know  much about it, said Hannah Penn K-8 learning support teacher Ellie Puhalla.

But they open up to it once they try it, Puhalla said.

“If you ask them...what’s everybody’s favorite class in seventh and eighth grade," she said, half of them will say science.

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