PLP Passport Fund: Girls in Science

As four female scientists, you could say we were drawn to one another. We–Faith, Maddie, McKenzie, and Sierra–were used to being the minority in our classes, so it only made sense that we joined together. Seeing a familiar face in a roomful of testosterone was always somewhat of a relief, and our friendship bloomed from there. Brian? Well, we just can’t seem to get rid of him.

We wish could say that we always knew we wanted to run a program for young girls in science, but that’s just not true. Really, it started as inside jokes and a handful of mini-rants. It was a relief to all of us to be able to draw strength from the our friendship–from people who got what it was like to be the only woman in your “Proteins and Enzymes” or “Linear Algebra” class; there was a certain strength in numbers, and, sadly, numbers is not what women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) have going for them.

In high-school, the number of women in advanced STEM classes (AP Calculus, AP Bio, etc.) is near equal to, if not more than, the male peers in their classes. However, the numbers start to drop in higher education. For example, in 2011 women earned 57.3% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded, but only claimed 19% of the bachelor’s degrees in fields like engineering and physics (see here). This gender disparity only increases in the workforce, and is evident in the highest levels of STEM; Only 48 women have been awarded nobel prizes from 1901-2015–however, there have been 822 men awarded with nobel prizes since then (see here).

Basically, female scientists are woefully outnumbered, and this gender gap could have something to do with the amount of blatant sexism women in STEM face. Just this April, evolutionary geneticists Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head were told to add a male co-author to ensure their paper wasn’t “drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideological based assumptions” by a reviewer for the journal PLOS ONE (see here). Then, just this summer, Nobel laureate Tim Hunt had the audacity to comment that he had trouble with women in lab, saying, “Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry” (see here ).

Of course, just like the #distractinglysexy backlash to Hunt’s comment, the best things happen when women unite and work together. It was just after we had all received the email urging us to apply for the PLP Passport grant that Maddie decided it was our turn to contribute to changing the atmosphere for women in STEM. Linking us all to the email, she asked, “Why don’t we do something about it?”

The PLP Passport grant was the catalyst, bringing us to the time old question: If we, the cantankerous complainers of female obscurity, couldn’t be bothered to take action, then who would? We sit, in our college classes, and are overlooked for answers, hold back from raising our hands, are sneered at for daring to participate, and, above all, are immediately mentally relegated to the class dustbin by a large percentage of the class – whether that be professors or classmates – simply because we do not walk through the world as men. This doesn’t end, and this won’t end, without a cultural shift that begins with how everyone talks to younger women about science, opportunities, and the uncountable infinity that is what they can achieve. Needless to say, the grant turned our passive awareness of injustice into focused zeal for change.

As we began planning in earnest for our event, Brian heard about our quest and graciously “volunteered” his help (We have him now! He can’t escape our clutches!). We were pretty much thrilled to add him because: 1) male allies are an important part of this battle against sexism, and 2) Brian is well-known to be an all around great guy and hard-worker. In addition to Brian, we gained the support of the members of Society of Physics Engineers and Women in Computing. All our hard work came to a head on November 14th, 2015, when we welcomed 50 young women from across Colorado to learn about the awesome-ness that is science.

After the opening orientation where we introduced the girls to our scientific role models (Rachel Carson and Maryam Mirzakhani among others), we broke into five groups: ecology, mathematics, biology, physics, and computer science. Each group had a fun lesson plan designed for the girls as well as a demonstration that the girls could show to their peers during the “Science Fair” portion of the day. For more information or to share ideas, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’d love ideas and partnerships for our Spring event!

This was where some of the best stuff happened during the event. Seeing these girls take ownership of their own learning and realize that whether the group they were in became their “thing” or not, they could understand and relay information about STEM topics in a fun way. That’s what we want–girls seeing themselves in STEM. Girls realizing they can accomplish things in these fields and that women have made essential contributions to them in the past. Girls realizing they may well hold the key to future essential contributions to STEM fields. Basically, girls realizing they can do anything.

This re-enlivened our faith in science. The current struggles don’t have to be the norm, as we saw in every girl who attended and brought life to our dream. Science shouldn’t be about gender; science is about curiosity, discovery, and wonder. It’s asking questions and learning more about what can, could, and will be. Our adventures Putting the Femme in STEM have reminded all five of us what brought us here in the first place. Ultimately, women have something to contribute to science, we have something to contribute to science, and you better believe every one of our 50 girls has something to contribute to science. So to all those STEMinists out there – we say: boldly go, girlfriend!

Take a look at our final video for some heartwearming STEM empowerment.

Written by current PLPers: Sierra Ashley, Maddie Doering, Brian Ketterman, Faith Lierheimer, and Mckenzie Ramirez.

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