TOPPENISH — Several hands went up when U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist Lisa Neven asked the group of eight middle school girls whether they think insects are gross.

It was the beginning of “Introduction to Insects,” one of many specialized sessions during the Expanding Your Horizons event Saturday at Heritage University. The event, co-sponsored by Heritage and the University of Washington’s GEAR UP program, drew more than 200 Yakima Valley middle school girls for a day filled with hands-on science courses.

The courses were taught by women with jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the STEM disciplines — in an attempt to combat the underrepresentation of women in those fields. Neven, who works out of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service office in Wapato, spent an hour impressing upon the eight girls the importance of science education. She also let them hold live stickbugs, pin dead insects and examine fruit flies under microscopes.

“It helps interest you more,” said Phebe Vazquez, a 14-year-old Sunnyside Middle School student who participated in the insect course. “You’re seeing it in actual reality. You get to touch them and actually be able to see their eyes and their wings under the microscope.”

That sort of hands-on experience is at the core of Expanding Your Horizons, said Alison Hutchinson, a Heritage career counselor and the event’s chairwoman. Other groups experimented with gravitational waves, built websites and examined rocks and fossils, all under the guidance of women with jobs in those fields.

“It’s all hands-on,” Hutchinson said. “And it’s professional women in our community who hold STEM jobs. We want the girls to, one, come onto a college campus and say, ‘I could see myself here’; and, two, we want them to see women in our community who do these jobs.”

The event was eye-opening for 14-year-old Hannah Riel, an eighth-grader at East Valley Middle School. She attended a workshop on food and nutrition and now may consider that as a course of study.

“I hadn’t even thought about that as a career,” she said. “But I think it’s cool.”

Just like the girls in Neven’s insect workshop ended up thinking entomology is cool. By the time it was over, none of them recoiled at the prospect of holding stickbugs or handling dead moths. And just before the session ended, Neven asked again whether any of the girls thought insects were gross.

This time no hands went up.