Gracie Britt, one of many STEM students at Lakewood High, is seen with the class fish on Tuesday in Lakewood. The class studied the effects of pet fish released into the Seven Lakes area. Britt, a sophomore and the club’s president, wants to become a marine biologist. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Gracie Britt, one of many STEM students at Lakewood High, is seen with the class fish on Tuesday in Lakewood. The class studied the effects of pet fish released into the Seven Lakes area. Britt, a sophomore and the club’s president, wants to become a marine biologist. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Girls in STEM find their voice — and a local problem to solve

Lakewood High students won national recognition for an outreach project on invasive aquatic animals.

LAKEWOOD — A new club designed to get high school girls more involved in science has turned its attention toward preventing the release of invasive aquatic species into local lakes.

The work won recognition in a national contest.

The Girls in STEM club started last year at Lakewood High School. The group is open to any student, but the focus is on increasing the number of young women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“We have such gender inequity in science in college and the workplace,” club adviser Dani Leach said. “As a teacher, I think we have to do something about that to move girls forward.”

Leach, who teaches ninth grade science and astrobiology, wanted a place where students could come after school to explore areas of science. The club meets weekly. They have “genius hour,” when they work on projects and share what they learn. Leach plans to bring in speakers. She wants to invite women who are veterinarians, biologists, astronomers and engineers.

This year, club members decided to try a group project. They competed in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest. Though this is only the second year the club has existed and the first time the girls competed, they were selected as one of the top five projects in Washington.

They’ve been studying invasive species in the Seven Lakes area. The goal is to do something that could make a difference in their own back yard, and the lakes near Stanwood and Marysville have seen some exotic inhabitants. One of the most well-known examples was in 2013, when a fisherman caught what looked to be a pacu. The toothy South American fish is related to the piranha, though it mainly eats fruits and vegetables.

Gracie Britt, 16, is president of Girls in STEM. She joined the club last year as a freshman. She lives within walking distance of Lake Goodwin.

She and her clubmates found a lot of public outreach about invasive plant species and the importance of native plants. However, there didn’t seem to be as much about invasive animals. Non-native fish, frogs, turtles and other creatures end up in local lakes. Likely they were pets until they were set loose, Britt said. That often happens because the owner wasn’t prepared to care for the animal or didn’t know how big it would grow. Sometimes, people move out of the area and set their pets free.

It’s not a mercy to the pet, and it’s not good for the ecosystem, Britt said. The pet likely will die in the wild and, if it does survive, it might compete with native species.

The club’s goal is to get information pamphlets into pet stores so people are more informed before they buy an aquatic animal. Buyers should know what kind of care is required, how large the animal might get and the damage that can be done if they decide to dump it into a lake or stream. They also aim to make a public service announcement for high school students and possibly a book for elementary kids.

“What I see with students is that it’s not really apathy, they just don’t have the confidence to tackle the world’s problems,” Leach said. “But to get them to do a local project where they can see the effects over the next year or so, that’s educational magic.”

Britt’s interest in aquatic species isn’t a fleeting one. She wants to study marine biology. She’s been fascinated with it since her mom took her to the aquarium when she was in third grade.

“I fell in love with it, and I didn’t want to leave,” she said. “Since then, people have been telling me I can’t do it, and I just want to prove them wrong.”

She said people tend to doubt her dreams because she’s not at the top of her class. She wants to show them you don’t have to ace every test to pursue a career in science.

Leach hopes to see Girls in STEM grow. Given some support, she thinks more young women can break into STEM fields.

“I’m not here to dictate what we do,” Leach said. “It’s just to help girls reach their dreams, whatever they may be.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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