It’s Friday night in Alverno’s Sister Joel Read Center, and something’s cooking in the science wing. The appetizing aroma of pan-seared chicken drifts from one open lab, mixing in the hallway with a low hum of chatter from the rooms nearby.

Inside the aromatic lab, teen girls are grouped around one of several portable two-burner stoves. As the music channel Trap Nation pulses in the background, the girls work together to whip up a variety of sauces.

This is no home economics class. The students are high schoolers who choose to kick off their weekend with hands-on science at Alverno’s Girls’ Academy of Science & Mathematics.

Launched in 2012 with a pilot cohort of 20 girls, the program now draws 90 juniors and seniors from 14 city high schools. Most are here tonight and every Friday night during the school year, taking deep dives into math, biology and chemistry.

HANDS-ON SCIENCE

Girls’ Academy is designed to bridge more than a few gaps by building skills and boosting academic achievement among lower-income, predominately minority students; fueling girls’ interest in science and math careers; and helping potential first-generation female college students feel comfortable on campus.

Supported by grant funding, the program is free for participants, including dinner and transportation. Applicants must demonstrate interest and aptitude in science or math and secure a recommendation.

The idea for the academy originated with Alverno science instructors who found their students underprepared for college-level lab work.

“When you talk to high school science teachers, you find that the resources aren’t there for students to participate in a lot of lab activities,” says Justin LaManna, associate professor of Biology, co-founder of the academy and its director. Research shows that girls and women prefer to do hands-on science that connects the lab with real life.

That’s the case at Girls’ Academy, where topics are selected based on a cohort’s interest: food science for the seniors and, for juniors — who rotate among math, biology or chemistry — the science of beauty.

In the biology classroom, a group of juniors takes in a brief lesson from Amal El-Sheikh, associate professor of Biology, about the layers of the skin before they are turned loose to calculate ingredient quantities, gather tools and supplies and select molds to make bath bombs.

Assisting El-Sheikh most Fridays is Elizabeth Gamillo, one of 12 Alverno students who helps with the program. She participated in the inaugural academy classes as a junior at Milwaukee’s Veritas High School and says the program sealed her decision to study biology at Alverno.

“It let me take a more in-depth look at the field, which was exciting,” she says. Gamillo also appreciated the experience of coming to a college campus and having the opportunity to talk with current students. (Read the story of another Girls' Academy alumna, and a new Alverno graduate, here.)

MATH WITH MEANING

The applied approach also characterizes the math program, where students are doing statistical analysis on the iconic Barbie doll to deduce how she might look if scaled up to human size.

“I wanted them to learn how to take two data sets, put them in the computer and run a test,” LaManna explains. He had them collect their own data; that way, he says “the data was meaningful to them, and then they really wanted to do the test. In their minds, it’s all about Barbie, but they learned a complex statistic.”

The girls created posters to share the results, featuring their hand-drawn versions of Barbie and an interactive, light-up component that they wired together.

ATTENDANCE EQUALS OPPORTUNITY

With Girls’ Academy in high demand, LaManna says those accepted must commit to attending. This year’s students, including Ronald Reagan High School seniors Laura Lopez and Lilliana Malave, may be especially motivated: Near-perfect attendance means they’re eligible for a substantial scholarship to Alverno.

Lopez, who took chemistry and biology at Girls’ Academy her junior year, wants to pursue a science-related career. Malave plans to study nursing.

“I look forward to coming here after school,” Malave says. “It’s more hands-on than high school science. I love that they’re providing this program.”

For more about Girls' Academy, visit the program's Facebook page