Science program teaches girls to stop doubting themselves
With patience, Emily Cruz detangled a vine with Dorito-shaped leaves from a fallen branch, unwinding it slowly and then pulling it out from the roots. The 12-year-old and 40 other middle-school girls were working to remove what’s known as mile-a-minute vines recently from New York City’s largest green space as part of a program aimed at encouraging girls to pursue environmental science. Over the years, the fast-growing plant has elbowed its way into Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, which is more than three times the size of Manhattan’s Central Park.
Emily and the other girls were observing the plants with Green Girls, which is run by the City Parks Foundation. It’s expanded from a three-week summer program to a five-week course that runs year-round since it started in 2002. While the summer program investigates urban forests, the focus is on drinking water during the school year. The key to its success, program leaders say, is the confidence the in-the-field activities give the girls. At a time when environmental professionals complain of a "leaky pipeline," Green Girls aims to plug the holes. In the U.S., women hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs despite making up 47 percent of the workforce, according to a 2017 report issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Green Girls Director of Education Chrissy Word thinks the gap has its roots in early education. A New York University study from last year found six-year-old girls less likely than boys to see their gender as “really, really smart,” suggesting these gender stereotypes start early. Green Girls administrators were aware of these issues when planning the curriculum. By creating safe spaces, providing female role models, and emphasizing growth, they see their program as uniquely poised to boost girls’ confidence.
In some ways, Green Girls resembles Girl Scouts, minus the badges and cookie selling. Half of the time the girls are searching for bugs and arguing about what kind of grasshopper species they found — it’s not a conehead, it’s a fork-tailed bush katydid! When one girl left the program early for the day, the others named a team (they were playing a game during a break) after her favorite plant, sassafras, which she likes because its roots smell like fruit loops. “I miss Alyssa!” the girls chanted. In addition to making it feel like camp, the outdoor classroom allows girls to interact with the nature they’re learning about. “You may think it’s boring to learn about the environment, but you’re probably not learning about the details,” Mritika Rahman, 12, said. “We learn in school that there are things called invasive species, but here we’re seeing them.”
Confidence boosting is ingrained in Green Girls, but not everything is focused on success. Leaders also teach girls how to manage failure, which research shows can matter especially in higher education when the work gets harder. For girls self-conscious about their intelligence, a failure on a test can feel like proof that they aren’t smart enough, but at Green Girls, failure is seen as an opportunity to learn. When a girl makes a mistake, it’s often another participant who helps her address it.
For women of color, navigating STEM means dealing with racist stereotypes in addition to sexist ones. A Pew Research report from earlier this year suggests women of color are more likely than white women and white men to doubt their abilities. And because the majority of students in Green Girls are women of color, administrators make a point to hire female professionals who look like them to talk about how they navigate multiple stereotypes. Giving young women of color access to these kinds of mentors is important not only to combat stereotypes, but to prepare them for hostile work environments. According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research that surveyed 474 astronomers and planetary scientists, “women of color experienced the highest rates of negative workplace experiences, including harassment and assault.” Forty percent of respondents who were women of color felt unsafe at work due to their gender or race.
By explicitly seeking out women of color as lecturers and encouraging Green Girls entering high school to sign up as interns, Word hopes to create a network of women that can help each other in each stage of their STEM career. Before leaving, Green Girls intern and former participant Erica Morales Armstrong had forgotten her skateboard. “Wait up!” the 16-year-old screamed, running back in the direction of the forest to fetch her board. After retrieving it, Erica reflected on the day’s lesson.
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