Girls Scouts pave way to future scientists


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Photos courtesy of Girl Scouts of Alaska Girl Scouts inspect an owl wing from the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage as part of the animal studies at the Women of Science and Technology Day.

Photos courtesy of Girl Scouts of Alaska

Jania Tumey has had a keen mind for science since longer than she can remember, and she’s only 12. But Tumey has a not-so-secret weapon she’s been using to make the most of her interest.

Tumey has been a Girl Scout since kindergarten. She’s now in sixth grade at Rogers Park Elementary School in Anchorage. She’s planning on getting into biology once she reaches high school.

But she’s not waiting until then. She participated in the Girl Scouts of Alaska’s recent Women of Science and Technology Day, which provides young ladies access to scientific professionals for some hands-on learning. These professional women come from diverse scientific backgrounds, including engineering, health care, chemistry and veterinary science. And a recent report from the Girl Scout Research Institute states these are interests shared by most girls Tumey’s age.

Girls Scouts are well known for their must-have cookies, but the nonprofit organization offers several programs and hands-on learning opportunities for young girls beyond hawking cookies once a year.

“I think being a Girl Scout gives you a lot more opportunities like going to the Women in Science event,” Tumey said. “I probably wouldn’t have been interested in science if I had not been to Women in Science.”

Apparently, this is a common theme. The report states that while most women are interested in science, technology, engineering and math — referred to in industry and education standards as STEM — women are still underrepresented in these fields.

The study finds that 74 percent of high school girls nationwide are interested in STEM fields, yet still are not encouraged enough to enter such fields. It also states that girls interested in these fields tend to be high achievers and are more confident, with many wanting to make a difference in the world. Girl Scouts of Alaska communications manager Anne Gore said the girls, once they gain interest, generally will continue these interests through college.

“We were really excited to see this come out and what it does is sort of confirms what we observed in girls being interested in science and math,” Gore said. “We’ve seen other studies that say girls aren’t interested, but this shows they are.”

Marge Stoneking, CEO for Girl Scouts of Alaska, said two major things stood out to her in the report. One is that what their work in girls-only STEM projects are working. “Because we now see an increased interest in STEM by girls, and that’s not been found in studies to date,” she said, referring to studies outside the organization.

She said the focus over of such studies over the past 10 years has been about how to get girls interested in STEM, while this shows that the Girl Scouts involvement has worked and they are already interested.

“And what were doing specifically in Girl Scouts with the Women in Science program in connecting women scientists with girls is particularly effective in helping us get to the next level, which would be having more girls or women go into STEM careers,” Stoneking said.

The other thing that struck her was that the demand for STEM jobs, particularly in engineering and technology, won’t be able to be met by men alone. She said this goes nationwide, but is especially true in Alaska. She said she finds it significant that in a natural resource state like Alaska, college students can get a variety of engineering and science degrees, yet many companies still have to look elsewhere to fill engineering jobs.

“And so here we have this whole untapped resource of girls who are interested in STEM if we can get them to the next level to choose STEM careers,” Stoneking said.

The issue lies in perceived gender barriers that prevent girls from turning science or technology that’s already in their interests into careers. The report states that girls really are interested in math and science, which goes against past studies that stated girls who do well academically are still not interested in these areas.

Gore said the study highlights that these girls may be interested in STEM, but may choose other careers that they know more about. She said this may also factor into girls having to work harder than men in STEM fields, which may be a factor in their career decisions.

The Women of Science and Technology Day is a program that has combated such discouragement by giving the girls a realistic idea that females in science and math can do these things. The girls themselves connect well to the presenters, asking them what their jobs are like and what it took to get there

Tumey said the women she’s met seem really good at their professions and they look happy doing it.

“Girls Scouts is using this to focus that there are women who are succeeding in these fields,” Gore said.

Of course, what’s a Girl Scout event without fun being involved? Tumey experienced agriculture and moose studies, but one of the most memorable was building structures out of paper, only they had to be strong enough to support a person.

“I think it taught us a lot of different jobs that we could have,” she said. “If you love animals or if you love building.”

Though she has time to decide, Tumey thinks she’ll opt toward the building part, perhaps architecture, but she hasn’t ruled out marine biologist since she enjoys working with animals. In fact, she’s working on a science project on ocean acidification for both a school fair and a state science fair.

Tumey’s been going to the event for several years, which is good for her since, as she says, she’s really serious about her science projects and goes beyond the Girl Scouts to enhance her interests. She’s met scientists through her mother’s reporting work with Reuters.

Alice Michaelson, 14, always knew women were involved in such work, but said she knew it by assumption. She never got to see them in action until the Scouts.

Michaelson is in eighth grade at Goldenview Middle School, also in Anchorage, and has also been in Girl Scouts since kindergarten and has attended the event for several years.

This time, she got to learn about scuba diving and bird treatment. It left an impression, as she said she’s definitely been considering going into a scientific field after this. If anything else, she said it sounds fun.

Women of Science and Technology Day takes place in communities both large and small across the state each year and reaches more than 2,0000 girls while involving about 200 women in the science-based professions.

This event itself is growing too. The Anchorage day hosted an unprecedented 120 professionals, more than the 77 volunteer presenters last year.

Stoneking said STEM is particularly significant focus for girls in the fourth- through eighth-grade ages because that’s an age when many tend to drop out of Scouts, but is also the timeframe when many become interested in their futures and begin eliminating career options.

Girl Scouts are for girls in kindergarten through 12th grade, with different participation levels that are appropriate for different age groups.

Jonathan Grass can be reached at jonathan.grass@alaskajournal.com.

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