College of LAS « Illinois

Girls Explore Biology Camp tackles a stereotype

NSF-supported outreach program encourages girls to explore careers in science

Katy Heath, left, professor of plant biology, helps a camper examine pond water at the Girls Explore Biology Camp.
Katy Heath, left, professor of plant biology, helps a camper examine pond water at the Girls Explore Biology Camp.
What does the word “scientist” bring to mind? If it’s a tall man with crazy hair straight out of “Back to the Future,” you’re far from alone. That’s a big reason why Katy Heath teaches biology not only to college students, but to children during the Girls Explore Biology Camp, hosted each summer on campus. 

“There has been a dearth of role models for women in science,” said Heath, a professor of plant biology. “The classic scientist in a movie has typically been an old white guy in a lab coat with fuzzy white hair, because people thought that’s what scientists look like. But that’s not true anymore.”

For that reason—and also for the love of science itself—the summer camp, designed for girls between the ages of 9 and 12, was founded in 2012 by Carla Cáceres, professor of animal biology and director of the School of Integrative Biology, through a grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant was given for broader outreach, and Illinois partners with the Champaign Park District. Cáceres, Heath, and Alex Harmon-Threatt, professor of entomology, organize the week-long camp.

The camp, which recently concluded its 2017 session, exposes girls to the biodiversity of insects, plants, microbes, and animals. Cáceres said that introducing campers to the plethora of opportunities available in science fields is crucial.

“I think it’s important for these girls to get in and do their hands-on science and ask their own questions, to ask more about what career options are,” she said.

Philip Anderson, professor of animal biology, helps campers examine bugs at the Girls Explore Biology Camp.
Philip Anderson, professor of animal biology, helps campers examine bugs at the Girls Explore Biology Camp.
For example, Cáceres said she grew up fascinated by a lake near her house, but never knew that it was a viable career option to study this fascination as a career until much later in her life.

“If you go into biology, you know you can be a dentist, or a doctor, or a vet, because those are careers that everybody’s heard of. But when I was that age I didn't know what a limnologist was, someone who studies lakes and ponds, which is what I do,” she said.

The camp provides the campers with opportunities to interact with scientists in the lab and the field. Throughout the week, the campers visit the Illinois Pollinatarium, spend a day at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana to learn about the prairie, and also spend time doing experiments in the lab.

In the lab, the girls examined pond water under microscopes and examined the motion of bugs collected from Meadowbrook on high-speed video. The campers also extracted DNA from strawberries and discussed their experiences.

“(The campers) very quickly recognize the link between microbial diversity and plant diversity,” Heath said.  “I don't even have to prompt them. They say, ‘Well, there are a lot of different plants in the prairie so maybe they’ll be different microbes.’ It’s a fantastic hypothesis. They could do a dissertation on that.”

While the Girls Explore Biology Camp is only offered for one week a summer, the Champaign Park District offers a 10-week series of Girl’s Explore camps that entail different fields of study, including engineering, physics, and arts. Some are connected with other U of I units.

And, after five years, there are signs that the effort is part of a new way of viewing science and scientists, especially for females. At the start of each camp, Cáceres asks the girls to draw a picture of what a scientist looks like. Increasingly, the girls are defying the stereotypical “Doc” Brown images.

“Some draw chemists, some draw biologists, someone this year drew somebody coding,” Cáceres said. “Just getting them to think about and talk about what science is can contribute to it.”

Added Heath: “We just feel like it’s important for girls of all kinds to have role models. It’s nice for them to see a working scientist who loves their job, who looks like them.”

Samantha Jones Toal
6/30/2017

Related Topics

  • Plant Biology
  • Entomology
  • Animal Biology
  • School of Integrative Biology