20 July 2015

Field trip of dreams

If you build fun, hands-on, science excursions, the girls will come. That's what SciGirls Summer Camp is all about.

By JOSH PALM

A group of about 15 girls piled out of three vans and gathered into a field outside Tall Timbers Research Station in northern Leon County. The girls were on a trip organized by SciGirls Tallahassee Summer Camp, a two-week program run by the National MagLab and WFSU. The group was greeted by Tall Timbers educators and scientists who, after introducing themselves by name and favorite ice cream flavor, taught them a method of bird tracking called radio telemetry. But instead of leaving the girls with a simple definition, they showed them how to use it.

The team took the girls on their very own bird-tracking expedition, and gave each a turn with the telemetry equipment. The girls hiked through the woods, pointing 3-foot radio antennae in all directions, listening for variations in sound that meant a bird wearing a radio transmitter was nearby. In this case, the signals were not coming from birds, as the volunteers first lead the girls to believe, but from bags of candy.

SciGirls field trips are like that: as fun as they are educational. Many students have little or no experience with science outside the classroom. But SciGirls get to see the practical uses of science and the difference they could make in the world by pursuing it. During the camp, SciGirls take part in about 10 off-site field trips in the Tallahassee area to watch science in action and do hands-on activities.

"SciGirls gives these campers an opportunity to actively participate in science, whether it be in a chemistry lab, an animal shelter or Tall Timbers," said camp co-director Roxanne Hughes, who directs educational outreach at the MagLab. "These active, hands-on research opportunities make SciGirls a unique experience."

At Tall Timbers, the SciGirls got to see biologist Jim Cox use a pre-recorded bird signal to trick an actual bird into getting caught in a net. Cox then showed the girls how he tagged the bird, explaining how tagging helps identify one bird from another for research purposes. The bird Cox caught, a Bachman's sparrow, had never been tagged before.

"What should we name it?" Cox asked, prompting a slew of suggestions: "George!" "Steven!" "Chicken nugget!"

Later, the SciGirls were given a chance to hold a few species of snakes. The girls formed a sitting circle and held their arms out flat, passing one snake from hand to hand as Tall Timbers biologist Kim Sash talked about them. Many of the girls backed away at first, but eventually held each snake. Then Sash showed them a baby snake, only a little longer than an index finger and no wider than the cord from an iPhone charger. The SciGirls rushed to get a better look, crowding around Sash and fawning in harmony: "Awwwwwwww!"

"Those girls aren't going to go smash a snake when they see another one," said Tall Timbers conservationist Georgia Ackerman. "Instead, they'll say ‘That's an earth snake, and it's important because …' So they're connecting to the ecology of where they live."

SciGirls aren't the only ones who benefit from these field trips. Teachers who chaperone and volunteers at each destination get inspired by the enthusiasm for science they see on these trips. Girls often come into the camp kind of shy. "It's nice to watch girls come out of their shells," said SciGirls camp assistant Toyka Holden.

"It's good for them to have an outlet where they feel comfortable," said Sash. "They're around other girls who are also interested… I wish there was SciGirls when I was young."