Think science as career, teen girls told by women in a male-dominated field

September 25, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

With splatters, smashes and thuds, a banana cream pie, pumpkin and egg plummeted from the top of the Maryland Science Center yesterday to become sloppy props in a daylong program aimed at piquing teen-age girls' interest in science careers.

The pie speckled Megan Donahue, an astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute, as she led about 45 girls through a series of measurements and calculations to show them how to calculate the Earth's mass.

Then they figured out the height of the World Trade Center using a sextant and geometry, and, balloons in hand, learned how astronomers measure the movement of distant stars.

"I hope they walk away knowing that they could understand something they couldn't already figure out. I hope they can see the connection between experiments on Earth and physics of outer space," Donahue said. "Here we are talking about choices they are about to make."

This was the first time that the institute, which has run such science programs for women since 1993, went to a daylong format to promote science careers for women. It was made possible by $6,000 in grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and scientist volunteers .

Joining the institute and Science Center in the program was the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which took students onto the water to measure the bay's health.

The forum was pitched to 440 students in hopes that maybe 100 would want to come. The program was filled in four days. There were enough girls turned away to nearly warrant another session, which organizers are considering, said Lisa Wyckoff, supervisor of community programs at the Science Center.

"We're all thinking about colleges and what we want to major in. This helps," said Dara Warner, 17, a senior at Annapolis' Key School, who is thinking of a career in engineering.

The broader goal was to keep the girls, recommended for the forum by their Maryland and Washington high schools, interested during a time in their lives when many opt out of studying the hard sciences. While the representation of women has increased in many science fields, it has remained consistently low in physical sciences for two decades. Women are best represented in astronomy, where 25 percent of astronomers are women, Donahue said.

The students - even those outnumbered by boys in their advanced calculus and science classes - said they were undaunted by the numbers. Some predicted a surge in the number of women choosing careers tied to physics, molecular biology and earth sciences, pointing to advanced math and science classes made up of mostly women.

"I think to some degree women will stand out more, but in a good way," said Lauren Willis, 16, an Easton High School senior. "It will be, `Here's another woman,' not, `Oh, no, what is she doing here?'"

She said that while it might be harder to be a woman studying astronomy and physics, the fields that interest her, the flip side is that scholarship dollars might be more available to her.

In a Science Center classroom, blue balloons became mini-galaxies studded with star stickers. The girls drew ripples on the flat balloons, then began to blow them up.

Kelly Johnson, 17, a Kent County High School senior, watched as her balloon got bigger and the stars grew farther apart and her scribbled waves enlarged. Then the balloon was deflated, and the waves shrunk.

"Things that are moving away from us stretch out," explained institute astronomer Denise Smith. Turning to a blackboard, she drew waves, showing the girls how she measures star distances using light waves. "If something were coming toward us, the wave lengths would be getting shorter."

The big-bang theory got a workout, too, as accidentally popped balloons collapsed.

The girls queried a panel of women scientists, who advised them to forget about the stereotype of the friendless scientist isolated in a lab.

Students wanted to know how they managed careers, family lives and outside interests, and how they made it in male-dominated fields at a time when nobody talked about gender equity.

"These barriers are there. They are not insurmountable. It does seem to be very age-specific. My hope is that by the time you are involved in your careers that you will sit up here and you will say , `Well, it was not so much an issue,' " said Kim Coble, Maryland senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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