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Lessons in food science got real last week when the human adolescents got to know the bovine adolescents at Branched Oak Farm northwest of Lincoln.

The meeting Friday, which involved much mooing on the calves’ part and much oohing and aahing (and some giggling) on the middle-school girls’ part, culminated a series of lessons for the humans on the science involved in producing the food we eat.

The girls are embarking on a five-year program that provides science, technology, engineering and math activities, business experience and mentors to encourage them to go on to college and ultimately pursue STEM careers.

The calves — who kept their distance — were just trying to keep the flies off.

Called Eureka!, the program is offered through Girls Inc. and represents the first foray of the national girls’ empowerment organization into Lincoln.

The group has operated in Omaha for decades and two years ago, state Sen. Anna Wishart became convinced Lincoln should have a chapter after she'd helped lead a two-week conservation internship for girls who’d been involved in Omaha's Girls Inc. programs.

“I called a colleague and said the girls in Lincoln are missing out on this,” she said. “We need this in Lincoln. Girls are hungry for this in Lincoln, to have this kind of exposure.”

Wishart and Jeff Cole, who leads a partnership called Beyond School Bells through the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, met with Girls Inc. leaders in Omaha and applied for an expansion grant for Lincoln. They got others on board, including leaders of Lincoln’s YWCA, YMCA and Malone Center, as well as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The national organization gave them a three-year, $300,000 grant to start a chapter in Lincoln, which will be based at the YWCA, Wishart said, and will offer programming through LPS' Community Learning Centers.

That’s still in the planning stages, but the new Lincoln chapter piloted the five-year STEM program this summer for 26 girls who will be starting eighth grade this fall.

For the first two summers, the girls will participate in a variety of STEM activities at UNL, as well as physical activities, including swimming and yoga. The next two summers they’ll be paired with local businesses for internships, and the last year, they can earn college credit and will have a mentor to help them with the college application process.

The goal, said program coordinator Myeisha Essex, is to help the girls get enough grants and scholarships to pay for college, she said.

Another goal: to encourage their interest in the often male-dominated STEM fields, a process that began last week at UNL.

The girls spent their mornings learning about food science. They made their own cheese (and learned it had to age), then used it to make their own pizzas (including Irving Middle School Tiegan Gunning’s stuffed crust masterpiece). In the afternoons, they learned new math concepts (yes, it was very fun).

Friday, they headed to Branched Oak Farm, where they trekked through the fields and skirted cow dung landmines to learn about the organic farming operation. They learned about cow’s milk and beef and the farm’s conservation efforts. They saw the cheese-making operation and tasted mulberries they plucked from trees.

And they hung out with the cows and calves.

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Tiegan, who wants to be a neuroscientist, appreciated that they were grass-fed.

“Do you smell anything?” she asked. “You don’t. You won’t.”

Darrionna Blackwell, who goes to Dawes Middle School, wasn’t thrilled about the idea of coming to a farm, but changed her mind once she got there and appreciated that each herd has a “boss cow” that takes charge.

She and Lali Regassa from Park Middle School and Brooke Byrnes from Dawes like math and science and are interested in everything that's happened so far — even though the cows didn’t wander close enough to touch Friday.

Essex said Friday’s trip — which ended with lunch at the farm-to-table Hub Café — helps the students see that STEM is a part of their lives, even when they don’t realize it.

“(The activities) are to encourage those connections,” she said. “To get them to realize STEM is all around you. You’re living it.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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