17 July 2012

Tomorrow's scientists get experience today at SciGirls camp

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As anyone who has survived the ordeal knows, middle school can be a confusing, tumultuous time. So it’s not surprising that some girls who excel at science and math throughout elementary school lose momentum when they hit the tween years. Once gone, it rarely returns: Women still earn far fewer degrees than men in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, and hold proportionately far fewer jobs.

A pair of 2012 SciGirls tests water quality on the first day of camp.A pair of 2012 SciGirls tests water quality on the first day of camp.The many women (and a few men) behind SciGirls Camp, operated jointly by the MagLab and WFSU, want to keep that love of science alive. For the next two weeks, 32 middle and high school girls are exploring science hands on alongside successful women scientists. Venturing beyond the textbook, they get to see, hear and do real science, meeting role models who inspire them to pursue their dreams.

“This age group is the key age group,” said Roxanne Hughes, director of educational outreach at the MagLab and co-director of the SciGirls camp, now in its seventh year. “In elementary school, there is no difference between achievement and interest for boys and girl. It’s really middle school that you start to see the gender gap that everybody talks about.”

Hughes, who specializes in research on increasing the number of women in STEM fields, said a variety of cultural and social factors contribute to this gap, including a paucity of female role models. Also, scientists suffer from an image problem among the painfully self-conscious middle school set: They are lab coat-wearing nerds with a penchant for pocket protectors and no sense of style.

SciGirls quickly debunks those myths.

Also on day one of camp, the SciGirls dove right into some science fun, testing the water quality of the pond behind the MagLab with Jackie Zimmerman of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Over the next two weeks, they’ll travel to field trips across north Florida for more hands-on science at Marianna Caverns, the Tallahassee-Leon Community Animal Service Center, the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center in Chipley, the Florida State University Medical School, and a forensics lab at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — to name just a few.

SciGirls teacher Kate Aplington helps a SciGirl collect water for testing.SciGirls teacher Kate Aplington (right) helps a SciGirl collect water for testing.For this year’s team of SciGirls teachers, all of whom overcame gender-related hurdles in their own STEM studies, the camp is as much about teaching an attitude as teaching science: toughness and persistence are as important as smarts and study habits when it comes to succeeding in science.

SciGirls teacher Toyka Holden, who was discouraged by her teacher from pursuing advanced algebra in high school (she did it anyway), said she hopes that, “ … the girls walk away with a sense of hope — to never settle, never take no as a final answer.”

That hope will come in handy as the girls advance in STEM, fields in which women still hold a disproportionately low share of undergraduate degrees and only a quarter of all jobs, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce report.

Fortunately, SciGirls has expanded over the years to provide more support and networking opportunities to participants.

“They get to interact with this community of like-minded girls who also like science, and then they get to meet these role models,” explained Hughes. In fact, on the very first day of the SciGirls session, campers lunched alongside real-life scientists who were cool, three-dimensional women with relatable families, hobbies and careers.

“It now goes beyond just the two weeks of camp,” explained camp co-director Kim Kelling Engstrom, director of educational services at WFSU. Throughout the year the girls have opportunities to do other science activities, volunteer, attend career days and meet working scientists. “The more times girls are engaged in science, the greater the chance that they will pursue careers in science,” she said. There’s even a SciGirls blog that chronicles the camp and keeps participants up to date on other opportunities.

Many organizations and individuals have contributed to SciGirls’ growing success, added Engstrom, including the engineering and design firm Atkins, which helps fund the camp, and the many scientists who enthusiastically plan and teach hands-on lessons.

“We’ve been able to build on this program and expand it and encourage more of the community to get involved in it,” said Engstrom. “The reason it’s been so successful is because it’s been such a strong partnership.”

The program has matured to the point that SciGirls alumnae are now teaching their successors. At the reception that will mark the end of this year’s session, Stephanie Reynolds, a former camper now studying at the California Institute of Technology, will talk to current SciGirls about pursuing an engineering degree. She remembers the excitement of her own SciGirls summer back in 2007.

“It kind of showed me how many possibilities there were,” said Reynolds, now 19. “It showed us that we had a lot options, that science is interesting and a lot of fun.”

All of which, she said, has proven true. “I like how you can just kind of explore the world on your own terms,” said Reynolds. “I had a passion for it and I just followed through with it.”