All-girls museum day camp builds confidence, challenges career stereotype
More than a dozen girls attended a weeklong, all-girls science day camp meant to dismantle stereotypes about science: that it's for boys, that it's too difficult, that girls can't do it.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Stepping carefully from rock to rock, 14-year-old Aya Osias tried not to submerge her sneakers in the slushy mud flat near the West Point Lighthouse at Discovery Park.
The tide was out, and she was on a mission with more than a dozen other girls to find the perfect seashell amid the jumble of wet, green and brown seaweed. Aya thrust her fingers into the mud and pulled up a crab exoskeleton.
"Everyone got a shell?" shouted Larkin Hood, an archaeologist and educator at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. "Pretty or ugly, slimy or clean — we'll take 'em."
The girls, gathering around Hood with their finds, were learning about archaeology as part of a weeklong, all-girls science day camp meant to dismantle stereotypes about science: that it's for boys, that it's too difficult, that girls can't do it.
Museum educators started the program, Girls in Science, this summer to boost the confidence of girls from seventh through ninth grades in their science abilities. Each day of the week, the girls were immersed in a new subject — from explaining the weather to extracting a banana's DNA.
The museum's efforts are part of a nationwide attempt to open up more doors for women in science. According to the National Science Foundation, the number of men working as scientists or engineers in 2006 drastically outnumbered the number of women doing so — almost 4 million to 1 million.
When second-grade students are asked to draw a scientist, most draw a white man in a lab coat, according to a 2007 study through the foundation's Research on Gender in Science and Engineering program. Children in the study who did draw a woman portrayed her as stern and somewhat gloomy.
On the first day of the Burke Museum camp, the girls were asked to draw or describe what they thought a scientist is supposed to look like. Most drew men, and they all concurred: Scientists wear thick glasses and lab coats, have crazy hair and carry around bubbling test tubes.
Museum educators said they wanted to show the girls that women can be successful in science, too, by exposing them to real, relatable female scientists such as Hood.
After teaching the girls about DNA on Wednesday, geneticist Sharon Birks tried to shape their perspectives by sharing stories about breaking into a predominantly male profession. She told them how hard it was to be confident when most of her professors were men.
"It's simply much harder to envision success for yourself when you don't see people who look like you succeeding in your field," Birks said.
Museum educators also wanted to give the girls an opportunity to approach science in a hands-on way. Informal environments such as museums and zoos can improve children's ability to learn science, according to a National Research Council report last January by Phillip Bell, associate professor of learning sciences at the University of Washington.
On Thursday, the girls were able to figure out what species of seashell they had found on the beach by comparing their finds with labeled ones from the museum's collections: heart cockles, hair chitons, moon snails. Most of the shells they found were smooth and curvy instead of bumpy and coiled. Hood explained that this was because West Point is a mostly sandy beach, not a rocky one.
Cradling her crab exoskeleton inside a large shell, Aya approached Dana Beaudry, one of the museum educators, and asked if the crab was dead. Beaudry explained that it wasn't a crab — it was just its exoskeleton.
"The crab is probably still alive and just like 80 percent bigger," Beaudry said. Lifting the exoskeleton up to her nose, she added: "If it was a dead crab, we wouldn't be able to hold it up to our faces and smell it."
"Ew," Aya said. "I want to see the inside of it."
Beaudry pulled apart the two halves of the exoskeleton, exposing the lung casing.
"That's so cool," Aya said, laughing as she poked it. "It's all Jell-o-ey."
On Friday, the last day of camp, the girls created presentation boards showing how their perspectives on science had changed. Bijou Basu, 12, had two sections on her board: a sketch of a mad scientist with crazy hair to show what she used to think scientists are supposed to look like, and a mirror to show what she knows now.
"I learned that a scientist is anyone who wants to know more about the world," she said.
Jean Guerrero: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
UPDATE - 09:46 AM
Exxon Mobil wins ruling in Alaska oil spill case
NEW - 7:51 AM
Longview man says he was tortured with hot knife
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.