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“Eureka!” can be more than an expression of joy.

For 26 middle school girls enrolled in a program offered under the YWCA of Lincoln’s growing umbrella of services, “Eureka!” empowers and engages girls who have completed seventh grade to see themselves as an important part of the workforce of the future.

The “Eureka!” experience in Lincoln started earlier this year with a four-week summer program that provided students from seven Lincoln middle schools with “living, breathing, hands-on experiences.” An example is a tour of the Kawasaki manufacturing plant in northwest Lincoln, where robotic operations now impact the plant’s production, said Karen Bell-Dancy, executive director of the YWCA of Lincoln.

“Girls Inc., an Omaha-based agency that works with ages 3 and up, approached us about managing a ‘Eureka!’ program here in Lincoln,” said Bell-Dancy.

“Most of what we do is through programs,” Bell-Dancy said during a recent interview at her office in the Sowers Building, 1701 S. 17th St. “We’re known for our work in equity and equality. Adding the ‘Eureka!’ program is a manifestation of how we’ve evolved.”

New partnership

The four-week S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education program grew out of a new partnership among the Clyde Malone Community Center, YWCA, YMCA, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Nebraska Children and Families Foundation.

Known for its efforts to empower women and eliminate racism, the YWCA was perceived as a perfect fit for the “Eureka!” program. The YWCA also operates a SMART girls program, with an emphasis on science and mathematics, for youth enrolled in grades 4-8.

Activity-based

Girls in the “Eureka!” program participate in a variety of compelling activities that explore STEM-nanosciences, robotics, DNA research and forensic science through hands-on experiences in a college campus environment. Each day of the girls’ four-week summer camp began with breakfast at the Clyde Malone Community Center, 2032 U St.

During the intensive summer program, most days involved complementary activities on the UNL campus, where the schedule featured a steady diet of activities in sports and physical fitness, healthy living and financial literacy, fostering educational, professional and personal development.

Five-year program

And the best part of “Eureka!”? The best is yet to come for the 26 Lincoln girls comprising the inaugural group. “Eureka!” is a five-year program.

Girls in the original class, formed last summer, will be together through their high school careers.

“The last year of their five-year experience will focus on college preparation,” said Bell-Dancy. “Each of the next four years, we’ll be bringing into the program a new group of girls who have completed seventh grade.”

Many of the students are likely to be first-generation college applicants. As “Eureka!” continues through the school year, the girls – comprising the first cohort in Lincoln’s brand-new chapter of Girls Inc. – will stay together throughout the course of the program, sharing hands-on, minds-on, untimed and ungraded opportunities for guided exploration, and skills and knowledge building.

Girls enrolled in “Eureka!” participate in monthly STEM learning events, complemented with weekly Girls Group programming. Third-, fourth-, and fifth-year participants will receive mentoring, post-secondary preparation and internship placements.

Building a ‘city’

Activities during the four-week summer camp ranged from learning the fundamentals of swimming to building a “Eureka City” complete with buildings that reflect what the participants aspire to pursue as careers. Asked to select her favorite activity in the program, one participant replied: “This activity allowed for us to be more creative in math. I made a concert hall. I want to become a singer and sing in a concert hall.”

Another participant in the math session of the Eureka City project said “making our own business” created a clearer vision of her future and was her favorite activity. “It helped me see my law firm and helped me see how I want to succeed in life.”

The project’s lead facilitator was Shannon Al-Badry, a senior civil engineering student at UNL.

Funding

Bell-Dancy said an initial grant from the Girls Inc. chapter in Omaha helped launch Lincoln’s new program. The national Girls Inc. organization followed suit with an additional grant.

Additional donations in the form of sponsorships are needed to ensure continued program growth. To apply to be a “Eureka!” sponsor, go to www.ywcalincoln.org.

“Girls really do flourish through ‘Eureka!’ and the S.T.E.M. education program,” noted Bell-Dancy. “This is quite an opportunity for incoming seventh-graders … it’s an opportunity that rarely exists.”

Meg Lauerman of Lincoln, a member of the Girls Inc. board, added: “It’s really exciting to see this happen in Lincoln … a game-changer.”

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