The pop culture genre of science fiction is populated with hard nosed, no nonsense pioneering women of spirit and intellectual integrity. Particularly in the 21st Century, fiction and the reality of women in science is being portrayed a bit more realistically despite the outlandish circumstances that onscreen heroines might find themselves in.
However, despite the warnings of the primary female protagonist in the 1993 classic Jurassic Park, Dr. Ellie Sattler’s observation that “Woman [will] inherit the Earth,” in response to male hubris, the path to real world achievement for girls interested in science and technology still isn’t exactly an easy one.
Tosha Punches, co-founder and director of the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) Camp for Girls, being held for the fourth year in Arroyo Grande, said the main difficulty in getting, or indeed, keeping young women on track for a career in the hard sciences is what they absorb in their teenage years.
“Our goal is to expose [camp attendees] to women in STEM careers,” said Punches. “Women in the world that do things every day that [the girls] may not have thought of before.”
Elaborating on the reason behind the age (8-12 but 7-13 at the outer limits) and gender of campers in the four year program, “at this point they still see themselves as inventors and creators. We try to explain that many women have gone before you, not to be discouraged, failing is ok, you can keep going.”
She added that by the time girls reach 15 or 16, the messages they receive from society and their peers, may not be so supportive.
“It’s hard to say exactly the causes, but that is the age when girls begin to drop out and the gap increases,” she said. “We want to show that that’s not from inside you, that’s someone telling you what you can’t do.”
Punches said she and others involved in creating the program came to that realization after running a summer robotics camp that was not gender specific. They only had one or two girls apply, and the ones that did felt “drowned out” in the predominantly male environment.
After two years of STEM Camp for Girls, they decided to add in the A for Art, as have many school districts that place an emphasis on those oft neglected areas of study.
“Gwynne [Stump] brought with her the [Bearded] Dragon, which is from Australia, so we’re doing Aboriginal dot-painting today,” punches explained on Aug 4, the last day of the camp.
Stump was the last in a series of Camp mentors, volunteering their time as experts in various scientific or technological fields, to demonstrate skills for the girls as well as give them some options to aspire to. A biologist by training, she got a PhD in Arizona before moving to SLO County.
Interestingly enough for an article starting off on a Jurassic Park reference, Stump specialized in lizards, particularly the common Western Fence Lizards plentiful in the area.
While she showed the girls how to catch the little creatures with a small noose and fishing pole – don’t worry, it’s far more humane and harmless to the reptile than how fish are caught—Stump gave the kids pointers on how to sex the animals, a little measure of instant information available just by looking.
“The lizards are one kind of wildlife you can catch and study without hurting them,” she explains, although it should be done properly.
Advice to the girls included, “don’t freak out if they bite you,” as their less harmful than a kitten bite, and “don’t grab them by the tail, these guys will drop their tails,” which would be harmful to the animals, losing their store of fat in the severed appendage .
“I caught thousands of these guys in grad school,” she explains, noting that she caught the ten she brought to class with the same skills. “Basically I studied them to determine how maternal stress in the parent transfers to offspring…I calculated hormone levels and more complex triggers…my research was confirmed in later observation. Humans are definitely a stressor on these animals’ environment.”
With 20 kids running around trying to catch the animals, Stump had placed in terrariums along a garden path, or catch their own, the mentor was a little busy to fully explain her take on the need for more women in the sciences, but she led by example.
Other lessons over four days the summer camp was in session included: ecology, the classic solar oven experiment, study of nuclear physics, electromagnetism, seeds in germination and a bit about foraging for food, chemistry and even some study of atomic structure using edible “Rice Krispy treat” models.
The program changes so as not to repeat itself for repeat campers every year, 12-year-old Loralei Dawson, now a camp assistant after graduating the program, had previously attended the camp every year since it started, then proceeding to Cal Poly’s Engineering Possibilities in College (EPIC) course.
“STEAM for Girls helped me find the interests that I didn’t know I would like and you do it with your friends,” she said. “I got into aerospace, which is pretty cool.”
Punches hopes more of their attendees and graduates will follow the same path to advanced education.
- By Camas Frank