Program Aims To Prove That Science IS a Girl Thing
On a brisk Saturday morning in November, pre-teen girls from across the greater New Haven area clamored around a large pile of pipe cleaners, sparkles, crayons, pom poms and glue sticks. Scattered throughout were less-familiar items: alligator clips, wire cutters, bar magnets, batteries and voltmeters.
The girls, gathered at the front of one of Sloane Physical Laboratories’ lecture halls, weren’t here to make crafts. They were here to do science.
Girls’ Science Investigations (GSI) is a Yale program in which girls from middle schools across the region converge on campus four times throughout the school year to experience the excitement of science and interact with women scientists. Topics this year range from exploring why things float, to electromagnetism, to life on other worlds. The next session, on Feb. 7, is titled “The Classical to Quantum Mechanical World.”
The students participate in different activities, such as building a power-generated flywheel and creating an electromagnet. In addition, the girls have the opportunity to hear from real women scientists — Yale faculty and graduate students who volunteer for the program — during a special “Ask a Scientist” session.
Presenting role models for the young participants is one of the most important aspects of the program, now in its second year, says Bonnie Fleming, program organizer and associate professor of physics.
“This age range — 6th to 8th grade — is the time when girls start to do worse than boys in math and science — when at younger ages, they do better. So it’s a break in the pipeline,” she says. “GSI is an opportunity for girls to come here, see science, have a good time, remember they had fun doing it, and therefore hopefully continue on in science in the future. It’s an attempt to fix the pipeline.”
Emily Reynolds, a high school volunteer who wanted to get involved after learning about the program through a family acquaintance, thinks the program allows the girls more freedom than they sometimes get in the classroom. “It’s harder for them to learn in school. Sometimes the boys take over the class,” she says.
That sentiment was echoed by Annita Alvarado, a 7th-grade student from Shelton. “The boys would be hogging the experiments,” she says, “and the pizza!” Mary Ann, also in grade 7, says she especially enjoyed the activities because she hopes to be a scientist one day. “I’ve always wanted to make an important discovery.”
The volunteers are there to encourage the girls to dream about just such a possibility, urging them to follow their interests and explore the world of science. “They’re actually learning some really cool concepts — things that I only learned last year,” such as the fact that a coiled wire can produce an electromagnetic field, says Yale sophomore Frances Douglas. “It’s great for them to know this stuff is out there and to actually build things through the demonstrations.”
The program, which is funded through Fleming’s National Science Foundation CAREER grant, the Department of Physics and Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs, is free for the participating schools. Fleming hopes the program will spread to other universities across the country.
Fleming learned the importance of having women role models early in life thanks to her mother. As a girl, when her mother would tell people she wanted to be a doctor, they would invariably tell her, “Oh, you mean you want to be a nurse.” It wasn’t until her mother saw a picture of a young woman doctor in a magazine one day that she realized she could be whatever she wanted to be.
Fleming also faced discrimination during her undergraduate and graduate years, but is thankful she had strong mentors who showed her it was possible to be a successful woman in the sciences. “It just takes one person to give you the inspiration and encouragement to go on,” she says. “I hope that’s what we provide for these girls.”
— By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin