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Empowering young minds through math and science

Susan Cianfrani, Oakwood Friends School, science and math camp, girls only math camp, girls only science camp, STEM day camps
It was the birth of her son that inspired Susan Cianfrani to reconsider her 12-year engineering career with IBM at the Fishkill campus.

"I realized that I was more excited about starting a family than I was about going back to work there," she says.

So, she started to look close to home to see what she might do next.

"Home" was then, and still is, the Oakwood Friends School campus in Poughkeepsie, a 220-year-old college preparatory school for grades 6 through 12. Cianfrani's husband, Charles, previously the physics and robotics teacher, was named head of school last year.

An idea is born
Cianfrani's work at the school began when she was brought on to tackle a massive database project. It was during that time she became more familiar with the school's faculty, as well as with the one-week camps held at the school during the summer.  

"The camps... were very art-centered, with crafts and singing and nature," she says.

In thinking about how the curriculum of the camp might be changed up, Cianfrani said she was informed by her own experience of having been one of two female engineers in a room full of male engineers. She also was aware some research found that it's during a girl's middle school years that she either embraces math and science, or veers away from those subjects.

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"So we went to the chair of the math and science department," she recalls, "and said, 'What about a math and science camp, but just for middle school girls?'"

 The lab meets the world
With that suggestion, the SAM Camp (Science and Math) was born.  
"I want to pull girls back into the fold and encourage them, to stick with it, and make it more fun for them," Cianfrani says. "I want to encourage more girls to pursue at least further studies in these fields, if not outright careers. And we just received a grant to set up a scholarship. We want to make the camp open to any young girls, whether they have the means to pay for it, or not."

The camp features guest speakers and field trips to various locations around the Hudson Valley, from a trip to the Walkway over the Hudson to study structural engineering, to Vassar College to learn about the science of art restoration. After that, it's back to the lab for a project based on where the campers visited.

"So after we went to the walkway, we built our own bridges with popsicle sticks," she says. "We visited a sewage treatment plant, and then when we got back to campus, we filtered our own water to see which materials worked best."

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At the end of the week, the girls put on a science fair to make presentations to their parents and the public. It's on that final day that Cianfrani gets a glimpse into the changes that even a week of camp can bring about in a young girl's life.

"On Monday when they arrive and they don't know a lot of people, they're very shy," she says. "But on Friday when they're front and center, presenting what they learned, you see the spark that's going to motivate them to keep going throughout the year. Seeing that excitement and motivation to want to do more is what I love about this camp."

Sharing lessons at home
She uses the same methods of exploration and discovery at home with her two sons, 7-year-old Henry and 5-year-old Andy. In a sense, she treats parenting like the scientist she is and the kids' education as a kind of ongoing experiment. 

"With my kids at home, we'll learn about math or science and I'll say 'And that's how this works, too,'" she says. "I try to make those connections, introduce new things to them so I can see what it will be that sparks their interest; seeing those little wheels turning in their heads, figuring it out."

The family especially enjoys building with Legos and letterboxing, an outdoor activity that entails looking for clues online that lead to hidden letterbox caches stashed throughout local parks.

"The kids love it because it's basically a treasure hunt," she explains.

READ MORE: Former IBMer shares love of math with local kids

Working from the same campus on which she lives allows Cianfrani to merge her home and work life together. And that will continue when her boys are old enough to be enrolled at Oakwood.
"I can't wait. And honestly, they can't wait either," she says.

Brian PJ Cronin is a freelance writer whose work appears throughout the Hudson Valley.

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