During the first test, the catapult shot too far to the left. Crowding around the apparatus they had assembled, the team of six middle school girls discussed how they could improve its accuracy for the next test.
“Maybe we should lower the spoon,” one suggested.
“Tighten the rubber bands,” said another.
The girls converged on their creation, which was composed of a wooden frame, a plastic spoon, rubber bands and dowels. Trading ideas and working together, they made adjustments and shot cotton balls to test their effects. While the team’s adjustments didn’t yield improved accuracy, that didn’t deter Ruby Anderson, a sixth grader from Linus Pauling Middle School.
“It shows that you have to try things multiple times to make sure that you’re doing it right,” Anderson says.
Anderson and her teammates were six of around 120 middle school girls who gathered in Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Science Center this February for the annual Discovering the Scientist Within workshop.
Developed almost 30 years ago with students like Anderson in mind, the workshop’s goal is to encourage young girls to pursue science throughout secondary school and college — despite negative social messages about women in science that may deter them.
At the workshop, the girls listened to a presentation from female OSU faculty and students working in science, then formed teams in the building’s atrium to complete the catapult challenge before attending tours and immersive workshops with members of several university colleges.
Anderson says having to assemble the catapult without instruction and then determine how to improve its accuracy was a good learning experience, something she appreciates in a school setting, too.
“I love science,” she says. Anderson is already thinking about a career in science, possibly studying animals in their habitat or working as a veterinarian.
Seeing a scientist in the mirror
“The idea is to get young girls excited about science and engineering,” says Sujaya Rao, an OSU crop and soil science professor who has coordinated the workshop for the last several years. “We want to change the stereotypic image that to be a scientist you have to be a male, you have to have a lab coat and you have to have weird hair. We want to show them that scientists are real people.”
In recent years, the workshop has been extremely popular, with more girls than the program can support signing up. This year’s tours included visiting College of Veterinary Medicine facilities, using pharmaceutical techniques to make lip gloss, designing and testing miniature wind turbines and other
By giving the girls the opportunity to participate in hands-on science and to experience a university environment, Kari Van Zee, an instructor in biochemistry who coordinated the tours and activities, hopes to empower them to follow their interests wherever they lead.
“We’re trying to connect to the social aspect of scientific professions to engage young girls,” Van Zee says. “At this age, I think they’re still interested in science but there are discouraging social messages about whether it is cool to be a mathematician. My hope is that they can see themselves coming to OSU, or any college experience, and that they can see themselves as scientists and engineers.“
Welcoming a wider community
This year, Rao reached out to communities throughout Oregon in hopes of attracting young girls from around the state and of varying ethnicities to the workshop.
Her efforts were rewarded with some students and their families driving as many as five hours to reach OSU from cities including Burns and Madras. Outreach efforts to the Latina community were also successful — around 25 Latina students from middle schools in Woodburn and Salem attending as a group.
To accommodate Latina students and their parents, presentations were available in both English and Spanish, and translators helped everyone participate during the hands-on tours.
“Because they have more material in Spanish now, parents are more likely to come and be involved in the program,” says Fabiola Camacho. “They feel like they are made welcome.”
Camacho is an education programs manager for the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation, which provides housing, social, educational and economic services to the Willamette Valley Latina community. She helped coordinate the Latina students’ attendance as part of the corporation’s work to promote educational opportunities for young students.
According to Sara Csaky, a teacher at Woodburn’s Valor Middle School, the interactive labs were particularly exciting for many of her school’s Latina students because the girls aren’t often able to be so involved in an educational setting.
“I really appreciate this opportunity,” Csaky says. “Because at school we try to do hands-on experience, but because the number of students we have each year is growing, we have less and less chance to do labs.”
Angelica Garcia, a sixth grader at Valor Middle School, chose the College of Pharmacy tour, “Phabulous Pharmacy.” She and around 20 other students combined waxes and oil over a hot pad to create lip balm and then learned to take blood pressure readings.
Garcia says she’d never heard about being a pharmacist or weighed out ingredients in a hands-on lab before the workshop. After creating a lime-flavored lip balm, she was enthusiastic to learn more.
“I kind of want to be a pharmacist now,” Garcia says. “I want to do it again.”
Ultimately, Rao hopes to help young girls learn about the varied careers they can pursue and to expand the workshop into an event that brings together even more families from across the state.
“It’s so powerful for them to see someone and think, ‘She’s a scientist, so maybe I could be a scientist too,’” Rao says. “That’s really what we want, for them to say ‘I can be a scientist.’”
-Story by Kayla Harr