Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Who makes a scientist: LEE’s participation in a girls’ science camp

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to take part in a high school girls’ science camp in which LEE participated. The camp’s overarching goal was to inspire young women to pursue their interest in science and introduce them to different career paths in science available to them.

The aim of the camp was both inspiring and important in light of the underrepresentation of women in STEM  (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers. Hopefully, by acquainting the high school girls to an array of careers in science and the women already in those careers, it may motivate a stronger bond between the girls and their proclivity for science. Plus, it simply offered fun experiences for the girls in different science fields.

Those of us in LEE were privileged work with the girls a part of each day during the camp. Our first day in, everyone was excitedly getting to know the girls they were to spend the week with, my advisor, Dr. Clancy, and our peers. In order to gauge the girls’ relationship with science, we asked them some simple questions about it. What is science and who does science? How do you know when you know something? How do you know when something is correct?

Not surprisingly the girls - interested enough in science to attend a science camp - were comfortable with the scientific method, knew how to evaluate their own knowledge of a subject, and knew when a topic in question was substantiated enough to accept it as truth. Interestingly though, when asked, most of the group did not consider themselves scientist. Instead of reflecting on their own critical thinking as scientific, most simply connected the word ‘scientist’ to specific careers: doctors, engineers, and a few biologists.

Through the week we covered applicable topics concerning our biology in relation to our environment, including cultural influences on self-image, microbiomes in response to environment and the interaction of genes and environment on hair phenotypes. We used small groups to generated discussion and help the girls spark their own research interest concerning biological and environmental influences that pertained to their lives. It was clear they were thinking like scientists! It was important to us that the girls saw this too, so we designed reflections and activities to help them realize the sophistication of their scientific thinking.

One hope we had for the camp was to provide the girls with an encouraging atmosphere not only to stimulate scientific interests, but to build social connections with peers around those interests. The camp naturally brought together like-minded girls that could share their interest in science. As a fun way to introduce the importance of social support in protecting against psychosocial stress we created a social networking activity that I led (Thoits, 2011).  After an open discussion about the people in our lives that help buffer our stress, the girls made a list of those individuals in their social networks: relatives, role models and friends (and a couple pets too). They defined their relation to the people, how close they considered them (on a scale of 1-3), and how often they communicated (on a scale of 1-3). The final project was a graphical representation of their social network categorized by colors and linear connections, indicating their relation and closeness to the individuals in their network.  

The week was brought full circle on our last day together when Dr. Clancy presented some quick schematic analyses of surveys the girls filed out on day one. With bolstered confidence in their scientific thinking, the girls jumped at the opportunity to interpret the data with research-level questions in mind. Interests, curiosities and questions filled up the room as they evaluated data based on the classroom sample and built ideas by sharing as a group.

It was rewarding to see the girls excited about science as it pertained so closely to their lives. How do parental interactions and social relationships affect stress and mental health? How does stress affect hormone levels and menstrual cycles? If irregular cycling is normal for teenage girls, what cultural influences may make me believe otherwise? These are several of many of the discussion questions the girls were raising.

The camp ended on a strong note. Our week together was well spent introducing the girls to anthropology, a subject rarely available to high school students. Additionally, our lab got to be visible, accessible women at different levels in a biological anthropology career path - as a professor, a graduate student and undergraduate students. Several girls finding a growing interest in anthropology by the end of the week asked about courses to take or ways to get involved in anthropology while still in high school.

The girls’ attitudes and conceptions of who a scientist is and who does science (including themselves) seemed to expand a lot as participation and enthusiasm shown in class discussion increased. It became clear by the end of the week that what makes a scientist is less about a specific job and more about how one perceives, questions and explores the world.

Providing the girls encouragement in their own abilities as scientists, a welcoming atmosphere to develop their passion for the subject and a means to connect with others with the same passion, in hope, left the young women with a growing excitement for any scientific paths they may choose to pursue.


Thoits, Peggy A. 2011. Mechanisms Linking Social Ties and Support to
Physical and Mental Health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior
52(2) 145-161. doi : 10.1177/0022146510395592

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