Middle-school girls learn joys of science at CSUS seminar By Blair Anthony Robertson Sunday, October 5, 2008
Eleven-year-old Brenna Intemann-Milligan, a sixth-grader at John Morse Waldorf Methods School, places her fingers inside a sheep’s heart during Saturday’s science conference at California State University, Sacramento. “That is so awesome,” Brenna said.
American girls have fallen behind in science. Maybe they think science is for dorks. It can involve things such as dissecting frogs, and that can be pretty gross. Studies have suggested girls don’t have enough scientist role models.
None of that was the case Saturday morning when some 500 middle school girls converged on the campus of California State University, Sacramento, for a daylong science conference.
In their workshops, the girls built mini-helicopters, received hands-on training for doing CSI-style analysis of skeletal remains, cut open sheep hearts and learned how to run cars on vegetable oil. On and on it went.
Along the way, they learned you can be smart and scientific and still be female and cool.
They heard a keynote speech from a 34-year-old woman with a doctorate in neurophysiology who also hosts a radio show, has a black belt in tae kwon do and, according to her blog, “enjoys hula-hooping to dance music turned up loud.”
In one of the labs, they learned about making biodiesel from an athletic 29-year-old chemistry professor who drove her grease-powered Jetta 90 miles from Chico. In her spare time, she competes in triathlons.
Suddenly, science didn’t seem so dorky.
“A lot of girls like science, but in high school there is a drop-off,” said Kirsten Sanford, the keynote speaker who hosts “This Week in Science” on KDVS 90.3 FM in Davis. “I’m trying to teach girls that science is fun.”
Sanford said women in science fields have an obligation to set up a “science support network” to encourage girls to at least consider pursuing a career in a science.
Lisa Ott, a chemistry professor at California State University, Chico, spent the day showing groups of girls how to circumvent our dependence on foreign oil by converting the stuff used to sizzle French fries into biodiesel. She sees herself as not only a teacher but a role model.
“I love chemistry and I really want to share that with other girls,” she said.
The girls were getting the message.
“Oh my God, I’m in the main chamber. That is so awesome,” exclaimed a wide-eyed Brenna Intemann-Milligan.
The 11-year-old from John Morse Waldorf Methods School wasn’t talking about an amusement park ride or house of mirrors. She had just cut open a sheep’s heart and her index finger was poking around inside the baseball-sized organ.
Some of the girls nearby cringed. Others seemed absolutely delighted.
Brenna loved every minute of it, though she conceded later that she was glad her brush with something so singularly slimy occurred before the lunch break, not after.
Kate Newton, 13, an eighth-grader at Marina Valley Middle School in El Dorado Hills, had mixed feelings about the whole thing.
“At first it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a sheep’s heart.’ I love animals,” she said. “But after you feel it and think about it, it gets to be more interesting than gross and it becomes educational.”
That pretty much sums up the idea behind the conference. Sponsored by CSUS and AT&T, the event has doubled in size in its second year.
“We want to aim at girls and catch them early to get them interested in the different fields of science,” said Teresa Kier, an AT&T project manager who volunteered at the conference.
Several of the girls in attendance said they already were convinced about going into a science career. Others were thinking about it.
And still others, based on the expressions on their faces when they saw the sheep hearts, might consider something like accounting or architecture.
Morgan Mitchell, a 12-year-old at PS7 middle school, has designs on a career in obstetrics and gynecology.
She has already cleared one hurdle: She once touched a dead lamb and “I
could do it without being disgusted by it.”
Zoe Jones, 12, of St. Mary’s School said she “definitely” wants to pursue a life of science “because there are so many cool opportunities.”
Including carnivorous plants, which were the focus of the next workshop at the conference. Brenna and her friends were absolutely excited at the thought of seeing a plant that spends its life catching and devouring bugs.
“I just think that’s so cool,” said Brenna, looking up for a minute as her fingers continued to poke around at the sheep’s heart.