Women in STEM: Green Iowa Americorps goes beyond the microscope

Starting in February the Des Moines chapter of Green Iowa AmeriCorps is hosting a four-session Women in STEM book club at Smokey Row Coffee in Des Moines.

Green Iowa focuses on education and outreach to encourage conservation and sustainability. Green Iowa AmeriCorps began in 2009 serving Black Hawk and Linn counties with site offices in Cedar Falls and Cedar Rapids. They now have seven offices around Iowa.

The Des Moines office focuses on organizing education and outreach events in schools, community centers, and businesses within the city to educate citizens on environmental issues and living a sustainable lifestyle.  

Green Iowa Americorps is operated through the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education. Green Iowa AmeriCorps is a community service program.

Clay & Milk talked with Green Iowa AmeriCorps Education Coordinator Kate Kemper and Logistics Coordinator Madeline Rastall about this book club, the impact they hope it has and other STEM initiatives.

“Our goal is to inspire and educate about the STEM field, show that it can be more than sitting behind a microscope or computer—that there’s so many different aspects to the STEM field and so many ways to get involved,” Rastall said.

The book club will read Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl, which recounts her struggle to establish and fund her own research laboratory.

Regular book club meetings will be held at 6:30-7:30 p.m. on Feb. 19, Feb. 26, and March 5. One meeting will be hosted on March 2 from 4:00-5:00 p.m. The meetings are free and open to anyone interested in discussing Lab Girl.  

Ten copies of Lab Girl are available at Des Moines Public Libraries or are available for purchase on Amazon.

This has been edited for clarity:

What would you say to someone thinking about coming but hasn’t participated in a book club before?

MR: I would say that this is something I’m fairly new to as well. I’ve always been interested in reading and these topics, but never really got a group together like this. I think it’s just a really great opportunity to network with other people, share your thoughts in an open setting, and just talk with other people that may or may not be similarly minded.

What gave you the idea to host a community eco-book club?

MR: The book is about a geobiologist, a scientist who focuses on trees and plants, so there’s an environmentally-minded theme, just like the focus of our organization. 

KK: A lot of our educational events surround STEM, which is why we brought in the women in STEM viewpoint. Obviously in the book she is a female scientist, so we wanted to bring that to the public and talk about it in a larger setting.

What is your goal for the book club?

MR: Our goal is to inspire and educate about the STEM field, show that it can be more than sitting behind a microscope or computer—that there’s so many different aspects to the STEM field and so many ways to get involved. We want to inspire people to think about the environment.

KK: And I think since this project is going to be over a span of time of four meetings, the people going to the meetings will be able to connect to one another, and that may provide some sort of mentorship opportunity if, for example, there’s a college student interested in chemistry and they meet someone working in that field, or a similar field, at the book club. There’s opportunity for discussion and a potential mentorship opportunity that may form just by being in the book club.

How did the idea of a book club arise? Did you see a need?

MR: I personally love reading, and I love the environment. Early on, when our team started brainstorming ideas for the whole year, it was one of the things I thought of because it is two things that I love to do, and I thought that it might be a neat way to get a group together to discuss some of the topics that we love most.

Why did you choose to center it around women in STEM?

MR: Again, that’s a topic Kate and I are both passionate about—we are women in STEM. When I was looking for a book to do this for, [the protagonist is] from Minnesota, which is close to home. Feminism and mental health are common themes in the book, which are some big topics in the world right now. I think that those are important messages to talk about and promote.

Are women who are not in STEM, or men, invited?

MR: Absolutely. We would never turn anyone away. This is definitely open to anyone who would want to learn more about it, have any questions, or are close to female scientists. Anyone and everyone who is interested.

KK: I think the best way to facilitate a quality, in-depth discussion is to have as many viewpoints as possible, including people who aren’t involved in the STEM field. Getting another perspective on what we’re reading is really beneficial to the broader discussion we’ll be having at the book club meeting.

How does this Women in STEM book club fit with other STEM or Women in STEM initiatives in schools and communities?

MR: There are other groups that are working on this issue. I know that the science center does a lot of women in STEM things that involve mentorship between young girls and women in the STEM field. I think across the country we’re seeing a big push for STEM involvement. This is just another great way to get involved, kind of on an intellectual and discussion level.

How long have you wanted to host an event like this that reaches anyone in the community?

MR: I think that’s something we’re always looking to do, to find new groups to connect with and inspire and educate about environment and conservation. It seems like a good opportunity to work with kids and college-aged adults as well. 

We’ll have to see how this one goes, see what works, what didn’t work. I think this will give us a good opportunity to see where people’s interests lie and then tailor another event towards those.

KK: We started working in September, so this is an idea that came up pretty close to when we started working. It came together in the last few weeks. It’s been awesome to see all the groups come together with CFUM and our team. Hopefully, if this one goes well, we can maybe do another one in the summer. That would be really cool to pick another book and do this again.

Do you think this event will tap into a group you haven’t reached before?

MR: I definitely think so. We haven’t done a lot of work with adults. And we’re reaching out to different university organizations, college campuses, with groups that are interested in the environment. We haven’t done a whole lot of those demographics yet, so hopefully, we’ll be able to reach some demographics we haven’t reached before.

What organization is sponsoring the event?

KK: It’s all sponsored by Green Iowa. We’re hosting it, facilitating it, all of it. Smokey Row has agreed to let us do it there.

What does Green Iowa AmeriCorps do?

KK: Our main focus is energy efficiency. The bulk of what we do, especially in the winter, is conducting home energy audits and weatherization. Our target demographics are low-income, elderly, disabled, and veterans. We will go into their home, conduct an energy audit, which is finding air leakages throughout the home, and then sealing all of those up to help keep the air out in efforts to help them save money and energy. In addition to the weatherizations, we have various education and outreach events that focus on energy conservation and sustainability.

What are some other educational outreach opportunities or events?

KK: So, tomorrow something that we’re doing is the I’ll Make-Me-A-World DMACC STEM Fest. We were invited by the DMACC STEM outreach group that involves some other area universities—Drake has a part in it, too—that are all coming together to bring different STEM opportunities to seventh to twelfth graders. We also have eco-trivia nights from Green Iowa. I personally have worked with the Cub Scouts on an educational event surrounding energy. We’ve done a lot of different things with different groups, mostly kids at this point, but we’re looking to do more with adults in the future.

Anything else you’d like to add?

KK: This is a completely free event, so we’re hoping it encourages people of all ages, all economic statuses to come and participate with us.

Morgan Garner covers the Iowa Statehouse for Clay & Milk and is a reoccurring contributor to Clay & Milk