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Science and Math Rock!
Eighteen-Year-Old Erin Lawler's One-Week Summer Project is Now a Year-Round Program

Erin Lawler owes her life to scientific advancements. Born with a heart defect, she had a clamshell umbrella, a tiny mechanism made out of metal and fiber, implanted to close a hole in her septum. "Because of that, all my life I've been interested in how science can improve a person's quality of life," the college freshman says.

Now, a program Lawler created with the Girl Scouts of the Chesapeake Bay Council, in Wilmington, Del., is sparking a similar fascination in other girls.

The impetus was Lawler's pursuit of her Girl Scout Gold Award in 2007. "I wanted to do a project that truly meant something to me," she recalls.

Her vision: a program called GEMS: Girls Empowered by Math and Science. Lawler's former Girl Scout Brownie troop leader suggested she base the program at Neighborhood House, a community center in a part of Wilmington crippled by poverty and crime. "She thought that my project would have a greater impact there because the girls didn't have a lot of support when it came to education," Lawler says.

Lawler put together a one-week science-oriented summer day camp, with each day concentrating on a specific topic. Fun experiments, such as dropping Mentos breath fresheners into 2-liter containers of soda to demonstrate the explosive power of gases, won skeptical girls over. (Further experiments proved that Mountain Dew caused the biggest explosion.) "The best way to get girls interested is to do activities that allow them to be creative," Lawler says. "The experiments displayed the concepts in a manner that made you forget they were scientific."

Her work with the girls spilled over the summer into the fall. She told the campers about her love of robotics. (When she was seven, she attended an event co-sponsored by Girl Scouts and DuPont called "Engineering Your Tomorrow," and went on to join a FIRST LEGO League robotics competition team.) The girls wanted to build robots, too. She organized a team, and a dozen girls signed up that autumn.

It was challenging. Lawler showed them the concepts of gear ratios and pulleys, but momentum flagged and all but two team members dropped out. Still, Lawyer stayed with it, and the remaining team members built a robot in time and ended up winning the Against All Odds award. In the regional competition, they placed sixth out of 25 teams.

In 2008, Lawler repeated the science day camp at a different community center, again spawning a robot-building team—and this time, everyone stuck with the project. And this past summer, Lawler's GEMS programming was offered at some Girl Scout camps in Delaware.

Last fall, Lawler was named a National Young Woman of Distinction, one of America's top Girl Scout Gold Award recipients. The designation honors extraordinary leadership demonstrated through community action projects. She has started at Hampton University, in Hampton, Va., and has her eye on majoring in electrical engineering and designing robots for NASA.

"Although math and science are great in concept, you can't truly understand their impact in your life unless you take action," Lawler says. "That's when you start to understand your world and how you, personally, can improve it."