Mercedes Randhahn found a laboratory to use. She learned two and a half months’ worth of chemistry material in just a couple of weeks. And then she got to work.

After lots of experiments, Randhahn figured out a way for people to safely dispose of leftover and unneeded opioids at home. They’d simply put the pills in a packet that has activated carbon in it, add some vinegar, shake it all together and let it sit for a couple of minutes.

“Then it’ll deactivate it and you can just throw it away in the trash without harming the environment,” said Randhahn, who was wearing Pac-Man socks with her school uniform as she went through her project this month.

Because of her age, though, Randhahn couldn’t work with actual opioids. She’s 14. So she substituted caffeine.

Randhahn and two other students from Utah, Kassie Holt, 13, and Sidor Clare, 14, were selected in September out of more than 2,300 applying to be among the 30 finalists in a national middle school science, technology, engineering and math competition called the Broadcom MASTERS. Winners are set to be announced Tuesday in Washington, D.C. [Update: Utah girls win $16,000 in national middle school science competition]

Getting girls this young, and younger, interested in science is key to seeing more women work in STEM fields in the future, according to a brief released in August from the Utah Women and Leadership Project.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mercedes Randhahn, standing next to her project board Oct. 22 in Ogden, was selected as a finalist in national middle school science competition.
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“Researchers continue to find that throughout childhood, youth and young adulthood, there is a persistent message and misconception that girls and women do not fit in the masculine STEM environment. Yet, the number of STEM-related jobs will continue to grow," the brief said.

In recent years, there hasn’t been as much improvement in STEM education for girls and women in Utah as Cheryl Hanewicz, one of the lead authors of the brief, hoped to see. While there’s been progress since research done in 2013, Utah girls still trail boys in science and math on national assessments. And the number of women earning STEM degrees at Utah public institutions has increased, but “remains substantially lower than men.”

More needs to be done, according to the brief, and a lot of it is “easy stuff” that can have a big impact, Hanewicz said. She pointed to connecting mentors with young girls, encouraging girls to take science classes and getting them involved with STEM organizations and clubs. "I think we just need to be really intentional,” Hanewicz said.

Holt and Clare, who are eighth graders at Beehive Science and Technology Academy in Sandy, and Randhahn, who’s now a freshman at Saint Joseph Catholic High School in Ogden, said their parents and teachers have supported their interest in science from a young age.

(Becky Jacobs | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sidor Clare, left, and Kassie Holt, right, stand next to their project board Oct. 21 in Sandy. The two were named among 30 finalists in a national science competition for their project focused on making building materials for Mars.

For their project, Clare and Holt created building materials that could be used on Mars. They combined resin with a soil mix similar to what would be found on the red planet, and then checked its durability with a compression tester at Salt Lake Community College. “Our resin brick was so strong that we had to move to a concrete crusher to test it,” Clare said.

And Randhahn, Clare and Holt now all have dreams of working in STEM fields. Holt wants to be a computer engineer for Google, Randhahn a chemical engineer and Clare a nutritionist. “Science makes up everything, and it’s interesting to try to understand,” Randhahn said.

Early interest in science

It’s “definitely” important to get students interested in science early, said Kory Ulle, a chemistry and physics teacher at Saint Joseph who helped Randhahn with her project. Ulle said he believes that “children are natural scientists,” but at some point, they get “turned off” from the subject.

“I couldn’t really tell you exactly why, but at some point before they get to me, a lot of students decide that they do not like science,” Ulle said.

But for Holt, “science has always been a big part of my life and my family," she said. Her mom, Kathy Holt, tried to expose Holt and her brothers to different topics and activities. Holt works with her dad and brother on projects with a robotics team. She helped create an app, called Water Bank, that helps Sandy residents conserve water. In her spare time, she likes to figure out how to protect computers from hackers.

Randhahn’s mom, physician Karen Boheen, has encouraged her to explore the questions she has. When Randhahn wondered how fidget spinners work, Boheen had her study gyroscopic precession.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mercedes Randhahn demonstrates her project Oct. 22 in a lab at Saint Joseph Catholic High School.
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Audrey Clare said she wanted her daughters, including Sidor, to go to Beehive Science and Technology Academy to “gain confidence in fields that are not traditionally heavy in women.”

“If they choose to become an engineer or a mathematician or a scientist or something, that’s awesome. But if they choose not to, I want it to be because they don’t want to, not because they feel that they lack the skills or the confidence or the competency to do it,” she said.

Clare remembers one of the first science projects she did at Beehive. She held a match under a balloon, and it popped. But “when you put water inside the balloon, it doesn’t pop quite as quickly because the water absorbs the heat,” she said.

“I thought it was really fun to demonstrate that and be able to explain it to people,” Clare said.

At school, Clare and Holt said they find it fun to explore a shelf filled with experiments provided by their scientific research teacher, Kerrie Upenieks. Sumeyra Gul, who runs the Girls Who Code group they’re in, helps them learn while also connecting them with other girls interested in the same things they like.

Not all of Holt’s and Clare’s friends are as into science. Holt remembers when she went to Lagoon Amusement Park with a group and “started talking about the science of a roller coaster. They were like, ‘Wait, hang on,'" she said. But Holt said she tries to show them how cool science is.

“No matter what your interests are, you can build science into that. And it will help you understand the world better,” Holt said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mercedes Randhahn demonstrates how she figured out a way for people to safely deactivate opioids in their homes.
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Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.