NOTES FROM ACADEME
Science, Math, Bubble Gum, and Dreams
August 12, 2005
Chronicle for Higher Education
By ROBIN WILSON
Salt Lake City - Two 13-year-old girls -- one in pigtails tied with pink and yellow ribbons -- sit at the controls in the mock cockpit of a 737 jet, watching the screen in front of them as they "fly" above Salt Lake City International Airport.
"OK, you can start looking for a runway now," instructs Manny Villalobos, a supervisor in the flight-simulation laboratory here at Westminster College.
"But I can't see anything," says Aimee Medsker, who just a half-hour earlier had pumped her fist in the air and cheered "Yesssss!" when she heard she would have a chance to get inside a flight simulator used to train real pilots.
Now the girls are flying in a snowstorm. Everything is covered in white, and they can't tell the water from the ground.
"Oh no," warns Mr. Villalobos. "We're gonna crash. We're gonna die."
The amateur pilots are among about 40 12- and 13-year-old girls who have come to Westminster's campus for a few days this summer to study technology, learn about careers in science and mathematics, and get a feel for college life. The program, sponsored by the American Association of University Women and the Mathematical Association of America, is called AWE + SUM: Attend • Westminster • Explore • Science • Use • Math.
"Many girls see these fields as not girl-friendly, or something for computer nerds who don't have any friends and aren't popular," says Suzanne G. Nissen, an AAUW volunteer and Westminster alumnae who helped coordinate the program. "We want to make sure girls see these fields as a viable option."
The girls spent two days building model airplanes, examining water and insects at a nearby creek, and making their own wind chimes using calculus to figure out what sound frequency matched each pipe length. They scoured the Internet for the answers to questions like: Who was the first Hispanic female astronaut? (Answer: Ellen Ochoa) And they even attended a session on skin care, just for fun.
Although this is the program's first year, it is not unique. Expanding Your Horizons, the first one-day workshops to help middle-school girls get a hands-on feel for mathematics, began nearly 30 years ago at Mills College. Carolyn Connell, a mathematics professor here who designed the Westminster camp, has been involved with several such workshops over the last two decades.
Similar programs, which have grown to include females from grade school to graduate school, all have a single goal: to boost the astonishingly low proportion of women in many science, engineering, and mathematics professions.
Westminster wanted to focus on Utah girls entering the eighth grade because that is a particularly pivotal time, says Ms. Nissen. The program asked teachers to recommend not necessarily their best students, but girls who were perhaps not achieving their full potential.
"AAUW research shows that middle school is the place where girls who may have been doing very well in math and science think they have to focus on belonging, on looking like everybody else," says Ms. Nissen, who was among about 20 volunteers from the association at the camp.
Thirteen is indeed an awkward age -- somewhere between girlhood and the world of grown-ups. The girls here snap sour-apple bubble gum, spin in their chairs during the lesson on aviation, and chew on the wooden pieces from their model airplanes as if they were popsicle sticks. But they turn serious when they tell me about how they want to become zoologists, obstetricians, or Air Force mechanics.
They acknowledge the pressure to be popular and to stray from academic interests.
"Most girls are into dance, makeup, and the choir," says Bettina Oesch, a 12-year-old with long blonde hair who earned a 4.0 grade-point average last school year. So far, she says, she has been able to chart her own course.
"I'm going my own direction," she says. That route may not include a career in science or math.
"I play competitive soccer," says Bettina, who is wearing a brace after breaking her collarbone during a game at home. "If I can't do something with athletics, I might go into science or math."
After the aviation lessons, the girls move outside into the 80-degree heat. First, Nicol Gagstetter, a graduate student at Utah State University, uses a plastic model landscape that includes lakes, streams, neighborhoods, factories, and mountains to teach the girls about watersheds. She asks them to shoot water from spray bottles onto the model so they can understand how rain and runoff from factories and household hoses make their way into the water supply.
"Remember that roads are part of the watershed," she says, "So think about that next time you think about throwing gum out the car window. Where will it end up?"
Next the girls head to Emigration Creek, which runs behind Westminster's library, to measure the water's oxygen level, pH content, sediment load, and temperature. They enjoy getting wet as much as they do taking measurements. Natalie Blanton, who is wading ankle deep in the creek, agrees with most of the girls here that it's good there are no boys at the camp. "I grew up with brothers, so I'm sick of boys anyway," she says. "I think girls can be a lot smarter than guys. They are more mature."
Ms. Connell, the math professor here, says she was careful not to invite any male instructors. Even the few photographers taking pictures for the math department here are female undergraduates.
"Especially with junior-high age, you do not want guys around," she says. "I've seen girls turn in an instant from intent scientists to giggling little girls as soon as a guy comes around."
The girls prove her right when a male photographer from a local paper, who is probably old enough to be their father, shows up at the stream. One of the girls is wearing tiny white shorts that are now not only wet but starting to get dirty. "He was staring at her butt," one girl whispers, as a handful of others dissolve into giggles.
The girls turn serious, though, when talking about why science and math are tough fields for women to break into. Says Sena Belgard: "You get the appearance when you're younger that science is a guy thing. Don't do it. I think they should advertise it more that girls can do science."
Kaela Hooker is one of the few girls who says she would actually like it if boys were here. "We can share ideas," she says optimistically. But then she seems to remember something that someone -- a teacher, a counselor, her parents -- has told her. "The boys make our self-esteem go down."
Few of the girls here seem to have much of a problem with that. They are upbeat about their own career prospects. So I begin telling them about what Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard University, said at a meeting earlier this year. "Do you know him?" asks Rachel Elmer.
Well, I tell her, I have spoken to him in a telephone interview.
"Tell him that I want to go to his school," she says.
Then I tell her that Mr. Summers said women may lack the innate ability to succeed in science.
"That is so mean!" Rachel shouts.
The other girls here are similarly outraged. "To compare men and women, really they should look at how determined they are and how much they want to do something," says Heather Cottle.
As if to prove that Mr. Summers was wrong, that night at dinner the camp pairs the girls with professional women who use science and mathematics in their work. There are, among others, a postdoctoral chemist, a computer programmer, and a compliance manager for the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Division. The idea is that as they munch on nachos with guacamole the girls will interview the women about their jobs and their lives. Over the coming school year, the women will keep in contact with the girls via e-mail. The girls will also return to Westminster for a day next January, where they will get help picking out science and mathematics courses for the following fall, when they will start high school.
After dinner, the girls are particularly excited about sleeping in Hogle Hall. For many, it is their first time overnight on a college campus. "It's like you have your own life here," says Sena. One of the girls, Rebecca Sorensen, invites everybody to an ice-cream party down the hall.
The next morning at 8:45, though, it is clear that some of the girls had too good a time. "We were up until 1," says Hayley Eriksson. "It's too early for math."
And how did the ice-cream party go?
"We didn't have it because the store closes at 5 o'clock," says Rebecca, "so we just watched TV and had pillow fights."