Girl Scouts 'Alaskan-ize' patches with resource sciences

Photo/Courtesy/Girl Scouts of Alaska

When Girls Scouts come to mind, one immediately thinks of those annual fund-raising cookie sales, coming to an end for the year on March 29.

What should also come to mind, however, are robots, and girls in training to be engineers and scientists, as well as geologists, petroleum and mining engineers and foresters. The cookies help support all that.

Most people aren’t aware of how Girl Scouts has changed over the years, or the unique niche Alaska’s Girl Scouts are carving for themselves particularly in science and technology education.

Alaskan girls lead the nation in many science fields, in fact, and robots are just one.

In science education, Girl Scouts of Alaska have developed four new patches — those traditional scout merit badges — in a sequence of science specialties. These are the first of their kind in the nation.

Four science patches were rolled out in mid-2014: Minerals, energy, forestry, and for girls mastering those, a fourth patch in natural resources.

Girl Scout organizations in the Lower 48 have individual science patches but none are as specific, or achieved in a group, as in Alaska.

Alaska Resource Education, the education nonprofit that has worked for years with schools in science education, developed the Alaska Girl Scout’s science patch series along with the educational curriculums used in achieving the patches.


I, Robot

Back to robots, however: Alaska Girl Scouts have fielded seven teams in statewide robotics competitions, which involve designing, building and demonstrating a robotic device.

The teams, comprised of girls only, do pretty well against the competing mixed teams, which are mostly boys and girls.

These are timed competitions. The Girl Scout teams scored high in all the competitions and one team, the “Electronically Overdressed Survivors” from Anchorage was crowned the overall state robotics champion in 2014.

There were two robotic teams from Anchorage in 2015, two teams from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and one team from Juneau, said Sur Perles, Girl Scouts of Alaska’s executive director.

What’s interesting, says Lisa Mead, the Girl Scouts’ program specialist for Alaska, is when things go wrong in the demonstration — mainly a robot not working — the girls figure it out, which says something about not only girls’ analytical and intuitive skills but also about collaborative teamwork in pinch. “The Girl Scout teams always score high in this (troubleshooting) part of the competition,” Mead said.


STEM priority

Girl Scouting is big in Alaska. Girl Scouts of Alaska, the organization for girls south of Denali Park, serves roughly 5,500 girls and 1,500 adult volunteers south. Girl Scouts Farthest North, meanwhile, serves girls north of Denali.

The program is surprisingly strong in rural areas, particularly in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta as well as the state’s major population centers of Anchorage, Mat-Su and Juneau. The program serves girls in grades K-12, from young “Daisy” scouts through older “Ambassadors.”

The push into science and technology is a national priority for Girl Scouts but it has been a priority in Alaska for a long time because of the importance of natural resources in the state’s economy, and industries like mining, petroleum and fisheries that offer professional opportunities for young women.

For example, for 23 years the Girl Scouts has held its yearly Women in Science and Technology Day, a program heavily supported by the state’s natural resource industries.

These are annual weekend immersion sessions for girls in grades K-8. Anchorage’s event, held in February, typically has more than 500 girls attending. Women in Science and Technology days are also planned in Ketchikan on March 28; in Juneau April 11, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough on April 11; Soldotna on April 18.

Sessions are also planned in Bethel, Petersburg, Seward and Sitka this year.

Alaska Resource Education provides materials and assistance for hands-on exercises for the events in Anchorage and Bethel. Exercises like “Finding Oil in a Cupcake,” which teaches the principles of geologic stratification, and “Jelly Belly Geology,” which teaches the principles of mineral identification, are favorites. (The cupcakes and jellybeans are consumed by the girls afterward.)

These exercises are also staples in Alaska Resource Education’s toolkit of lessons for schools.

For older girls there are higher-level demonstrations: A dentist shows how teeth are drilled; a forensic expert shows what happens at a crime scene.

Women of Science events are typically guided by female scientists and engineers from resource industries and government agencies. Support for Girl Scouts’ science initiatives from Alaska resource industries is crucial because women professionals in these industries can work with the girls and become role models, said Jane Angvik. 

Alaska Resource Education has become the de facto science and technology education arm of Girl Scouts of Alaska, Angvik said. Nowhere else in the nation do Girl Scout troops have this kind of support structure, she said.


Alaskan-izing Girls

Alaska Girl Scouts have a long history of “Alaskan-izing” the scouts’ national programs, Angvik said. Girl Scouts of the USA, the national organization, for example, has long had patches in birding and dance, but Alaska girls have dog mushing, Angvik said.

“We have cultural patches too, including Native languages like Yupik, Athabascan and Tlingit,” she said.

The requirements for the science patches aren’t simple. To earn an Energy Patch, girls must complete several exercises, read local newspapers on events related to energy, list major Alaska sources of energy and how they are used and where in the state they are found, and then research the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and the Fire Island wind project.

The renewable energy exercise presents one of the more challenging tasks: set up as competitive games for teams. Girls must do homework in advance on the types of nonrenewable and renewable energy. The game starts with sets of multi-color beans in different proportions to represent the different types of energy. Round one starts with a scenario of slow-growth communities using nonrenewable energy. Depletion of the resource is charted.

Round two introduces growing populations and growing energy use, again with no renewables. Depletion is again charted. Rounds three and four introduce renewable energies in the mix in both stable and growing population scenarios.

The teams chart how many years that nonrenewable resource will last and how they can change with renewable energy introduced.

The competition involves figuring out how communities can make the resources last. The winning team devises the best strategy to make the energy last, meeting the needs of growing populations.

For the minerals patch, “Mine a Cookie” is a challenging exercise where girls “mine” through a soft cookie to extract nuts, chocolate chips or raisins that representing minerals imbedded in rock (in this case, the cookie).

Photo/Courtesy/Girl Scouts of Alaska
Girl Scouts participate in a workshop to find oil in a cake as a means to learn geological formations at a March launch party for four new patches in science specialties.

The cookies are covered with frosting so the girls must “explore” to find the minerals, then remove and “mill” them (separate the minerals from the rock), and finally tally the totals recovered. For older girls the concepts of profit and loss are introduced, including debt incurred to begin mining.

Most of the exercises and curriculums in Alaska Resource Education’s collection, which total 144 exercises and about 24 most commonly used, were conceived and developed in Alaska by the organization’s board members working with education curriculum writers.

Angvik has strong feelings about the Alaska Girl Scouts’ emphasis on science and technology.

“Girl Scouts creates an environment where girls build self-confidence. It’s a safe place to try things they might not ordinarily do, such as in science, and where they can risk a little,” she said.

“If we can get them young enough and keep them in this program for 10 years, we build girls with the confidence to handle all the slings and arrows of life.”


03/19/2015 - 10:37am