Getting Girls Interested in Science a WISE Idea

08/02/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online Sun Correspondent By MICHAEL LAFLEUR

Marie Powers used to picture all scientists as serious-looking men and women in white lab coats, peering intently into test tubes.

After attending the Women in Science and Engineering program Friday at UMass Lowell, the 13-year-old was ready to change her tune.

"There's more to it than just what you think about it," said Powers, a student at Blanchard Middle School in Westford, who's interested in someday attending medical school.

"I liked the different fields that it covered," she said of the daylong WISE program, in its seventh annual incarnation at UMass Lowell.

UMass Lowell chemistry professor Ruth Tanner, who has headed WISE since its inception, said those are exactly the reactions the career day is intended to evoke.

"There's a real need for interesting seventh- and eighth-grade girls in science and engineering," areas that have historically been male-dominated, Tanner said. "One of the ways of doing that is having them meet women from the various science and engineering fields."

About 425 girls from 16 middle and junior high schools in the Merrimack Valley took part in Friday's program, [funded by Philips Medical Systems in Andover, Mass., and other sponsors.]*

The teens visited 26 different hands-on presentations run by professional women.

Omarys Hernandez, 12, a student at South Lawrence East School, said she once thought of science as "boring," but after Friday, "it looks more fun to me."

Helping that impression along was keynote speaker Jackie Richter-Menge, who opened her speech in a fur-lined arctic snowsuit.

Chief of the Snow and Ice Branch at the U.S. Army Cold Region Research and Engineering Lab in Hanover, N.H., Richter-Menge, 44, said science first piqued her interest because of an abiding curiosity about how the world works.

"Math and science really gave me the tools to answer the questions that would pop into my mind," she said.

Kim Morin, 22, a biotechnology researcher working on her master's thesis at the U.S. Army Natick Laboratory, said she hoped her presence showed the teens that there is a growing number younger women in the sciences, too.

"They can see that I'm not old, and I'm not dorky, and I'm a normal person," said Morin, a recent graduate from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

But not everyone was swayed by the event.

Jenn Smith, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at the McCarthy Middle School in Chelmsford, said she enjoyed Friday's activities, but she still wants to be a teacher.

"It was interesting to find out about, but I don't think this is the field I'm interested in," she said.

Smith's classmate, aspiring geneticist Cory Sheasby, 13, however, may be a member of the next generation of women researchers.

"I was interested in (genetics) before, but I got a better perspective of what it is," Sheasby said.

Melissa Bell, a meteorologist with WBZ-TV, said she would like to see more girls adopt such careers.

"Girls definitely have a greater challenge breaking into the sciences that have been traditionally dominated by men, but I think that is hopefully changing," Bell said.

*Edited for accuracy by UMass Lowell.