GARY, Ind. -- In 20 minutes, D'Jharea Joyce and her group needed to build a free-standing structure with limited materials able to withstand the weight of 1 1/2 boxes of spaghetti.
When their triangular-shaped structure made from spaghetti and marshmallows held -- unlike others in the room, she didn't believe it.
"It was just suspense and surprise," said Joyce, 13, as her team won the inaugural activity in STEM Scouts program, started by Boy Scouts to encourage learning math and science.
When it began in 2005, her all-girls school, Frankie Woods McCullough Academy for Girls, shifted its emphasis toward science and mathematics -- encouraging girls to defy gender stereotypes and embrace science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields at an earlier age.
Historically, girls have scored weaker in those areas in testing. The school's goal was to change that trend, Principal Pearl Prince said.
Academic research provided from Indiana University in Bloomington has helped teachers identify why girls were often drowned out of math and science discussions at school -- male peers were often more naturally domineering in a classroom, said kindergarten teacher Antonia Escobedo.
"They found that women as teachers ... were geared toward asking the boys more of the math and science questions, because they would have the answers, or the problem-solving techniques," she said.
To correct that problem, McCullough teachers emphasize problem-solving skills and ownership of learning, she said. "Just having that confidence and that was one skill they said girls lack."
A key would be for teachers to hold back and encourage girls to take charge and become more independent in class: "In doing so, then we can see the progression of their learning," Escobedo said.
As the struggling Gary Community School Corp. became the only F-rated district in Indiana last year, based partly on ISTEP test scores, McCullough is one of a small number of schools in the district that has consistently received an A rating in recent years.