Junior high girls get a head start on academic paths and careers in male-dominated field
June 28, 2005
Salt Lake Tribune
By Shinika A. Sykes
Teachers say there's plenty of evidence that when young girls are motivated and encouraged, they excel at science.
They may be unable to explain Einstein's theory of relativity or Stephen Hawking's quest for a theory of everything, but the 39 Utah junior high school girls at Westminster College's summer camp this week plan to pursue careers in science.
Monday was the first full day for the girls, ages 12-14, at the three-day camp aimed at steering them toward the traditionally male-dominated sciences. Having spent Sunday night in Westminster's dorms, the girls were eager for some hands-on projects using technology, math and science.
Before the inaugural camp wraps up tonight, the budding scientists will dabble in computer programming, study aquatic life forms from Emigration Creek and test the aerodynamics of model airplanes.
The students represent 22 Utah schools, including Wasatch Junior High in Heber Valley and Whitehorse High School on the Navajo Reservation.
Caitlin Joy Bellon, an eighth grader at Mt. Jordan Middle School in Sandy, doesn't need much pushing. The 14-year-old, who likes looking at things under a microscope, wants to be a science teacher. She already has given the camp a "cool" rating and would like to be invited back next year.
That's what Sue Nissen likes to hear. The head of the American Association of University Women in Salt Lake City - which is the joint sponsor of the camp with the Mathematical Association of America - refused to step into the debate stirred last January when Harvard University President Larry Summers suggested that men are better equipped than women for careers in science.
There's plenty of evidence that when young girls are motivated and encouraged, they excel at science, Nissen said. The goal is to reach them early.
"If a girl doesn't have a good support system or the inner strength, she tends to hold back or 'self-silence' herself in math and science classes."
While most of her friends are into art, Wasatch Junior High student Surabhi Kasera prefers the exactness of mathematics and wants to be a math teacher.
Sena Belgard,of Bryant Intermediate, has set her sights on being a pilot. She spent much of Monday in Westminster's aviation lab, simulating taking off and landing a small plane at Salt Lake City International Airport.
"I only crashed once," she said proudly.
Like most of the young girls, Belgard "feels lucky" to have the opportunity to learn fun things while pretending to be a Westminster College student. When her parents dropped her off for the camp, Belgard said her mom wanted to stay when she saw all the "fun things we get to do."
Westminster math professor Carolyn Connell says there was a lot of interest in the year's event.
"We could have easily had 80 to 100 girls for the camp," said Connell, who plans to seek money to put the camp on again next year.
Connell, who has taught at Westminster for 23 years, said before her college days, she didn't realize women were discriminated against or that there was a social stigma attached to girls interested in math or science. During high school, her father, a physics instructor, had the same high expectations for her in math and science as he did for her brothers, she said.
After finding herself the only female in a physics class at the University of Texas in Austin years ago, reality hit home for her. She later gravitated towards math, an area where she felt more comfortable.
Connell says parental encouragement, especially from the father, is vital for interesting girls in math and science.
Not to take anything from mothers, she added, but girls often need their dad's approval to go into nontraditional roles.
"It's a confidence booster."