In their Element
Science Day at PCC aims to change trends of male-dominated studies, professions
By Sara Cardine 03/08/2012
Girls may be made of sugar and spice, but could they look in a microscope and tell you about the chemical components of a sugar crystal? Or, more importantly, would they even want to?
On Saturday morning, about 300 girls from middle school campuses throughout Pasadena Unified School District will arrive at Pasadena City College to take part in the 14th Annual Girls’ Science Day, an event hosted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the local chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and organized by faculty members of the PCC’s science departments.
There, they will spend a few hours engaging in educational, hands-on workshops that may ask them to create a chemical compound for slime, dissect a squid or examine fingerprints and blood samples collected from a crime scene.
For the past 14 years, scientists have given of their time (and slime) with the intention of warming female students to the idea of pursuing careers related to science and math. The idea is that, if girls are encouraged to explore their inner geologist, crime scene investigator or lab technician, they may be more likely to attend college and eventually seek college degrees, or even careers, in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
Organizers say Girls’ Science Day exists because, although women have come a long way professionally in recent decades, they are still largely absent from advanced-level degree programs and careers where math and more technical forms of science are employed. If girls were given a chance to spend time on a college campus away from their male counterparts, they reason, they might see how interesting and doable science really is.
“There’s been a need to get more girls interested in science,” says David Douglass, PCC’s dean of natural sciences and a lead organizer of the event. “And girls and boys interact differently with science when they’re in segregated groups.”
One of the workshop leaders at this year’s event will be Susan Kane, a former member of the Pasadena Board of Education and professor of tumor cell biology for City of Hope. As a PhD researcher, Kane’s lab specializes in the study of how drug-resistant forms of cancer adapt to chemotherapy, in particular breast cancer cells. Although the work her team does is of the utmost relevance to women, it is largely performed by men. That’s not uncommon in more technical and research-based fields like hers, Kane admits. Similarly, women are less likely to pursue advanced degrees in science fields.
According to a 2010 report published by the AAUW titled “Why so few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,” women accounted for 39 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned in science and engineering. But when the field of biology, in which women predominate, was removed, they accounted for only 18 percent of degrees earned. Among professionals with doctorates in computer and information sciences in 2006, 83 percent were men.
“In life sciences, women and men enter school at the same rate, but then there is a gradual drop off,” Kane says. “Some of it is career/life balance issues, but some of it is women not really liking the culture of science — it’s very competitive, intensive work. There aren’t many women in leadership positions in the sciences.”
The reasons for that are manifold, but research suggests part of it is that girls are generally not as interested in science and are not encouraged as much as boys to engage with scientific topics and coursework. A 2009 poll conducted by the American Society for Quality reported that 24 percent of boys but only 5 percent of girls ages 8 to 17 said they’d be interested in pursuing a career in engineering.
A report put out the previous year by Ashby Plant and colleagues in Florida State University’s psychology department said middle school girls’ interest in engineering increased after they were shown a 20-minute narrative delivered by a computer-generated female agent describing the lives on female engineers and the benefits of working in the field. In that vein, PCC faculty members hope girls who attend the event may be similarly inspired.
“At the beginning of the day, they walk in and you can tell they’re kind of nervous and looking around, but then by the end of the day, they totally get their hands dirty and they’re all super chatty — you can hardly rein them in,” says Rhea Presiado, an instructor of natural sciences at PCC who’s led workshops at Girls’ Science Day since she started teaching there three years ago.
Presiado said stereotypes of female scientists don’t paint a very compelling picture, especially to 13-year-old girls, and the lack of female science role models can present another significant road block. She herself became interested in science when a college professor connected her love of the ocean and being on the beach to the study of geography.
Kane’s interest in science was fostered by Mary Knowlton, a junior high biology teacher who got her interested in the DNA science that was becoming popular at the time.
“The a-ha moment for me was realizing the genetic code was sort of a big puzzle,” she says. “I loved doing puzzles, and my friend used to give me cryptograms to do. When I learned [DNA] was like a cryptogram, that really appealed to me.”
Another happy byproduct of Girls’ Science Day, Presiado says, is that it seems to get participants excited about someday going to college. Because the event is geared toward girls in that magic age window — old enough to glean the implicit message behind it, but still young and impressionable enough to let that message resonate — some students who might not have otherwise considered college are especially inspired in a new direction. From time to time, Presiado says a participant will ask her if she can be her teacher in the future, when she comes back to PCC as a student.
Kane is looking forward to this weekend, simply because she loves communicating to the girls how fun a career in science can be.
“To me, there’s something new everyday. Even though it sounds monotonous, like you’re staring at a microscope, we’re doing stuff that nobody’s ever done before,” she says. “That’s pretty cool, and girls shouldn’t miss out on it.”