Inspiring girls in science and math
Monday, August 01, 2011
Professor Annette Ostling and graduate student Susanna Messinger worked with a small group of 7th and 8th grade girls for a week this summer in late June to early July as part of a new ecology focus group for a U-M Women in Science and Engineering – Girls in Science and Engineering (WISE-GISE) summer camp.
The students explored and took part in hands-on lab and computer activities in Ostling’s lab, at the Museum of Zoology, and outside on the Diag and at the Nichols Arboretum.
The focus group was part of Ostling’s three-year NSF grant titled "Niche versus neutral structure in populations and communities.” Part of aim of the project is to encourage the participation of women in mathematical biology by running a focus group on topics related to the research at this camp. The grant award began September 15, 2010. She plans to run the focus group for at least the next two years of her grant.
Messinger took the lead on organizing the camp, creating the week-long program for the girls, and designing and digging up from a variety of sources the vast majority of the activities for the students.
The group went on an ecology scavenger hunt, experimented with yeast, toured the bird and mammal collections at the museum thanks to Janet Hinshaw (birds) and Steve Hinshaw (mammals). They toured the labs of Professor Liz Tibbett's (via graduate student Mike Sheehan), Ray Barbehenn, and Professor Chris Dick (via graduate student Brian Sedio). Graduate students Sheehan and Brian Dorsey accompanied the camp at the Arboretum as fellow naturalists. Dr. Jeffrey Lake, a former postdoc in Ostling’s lab, also assisted with the focus group.
At the museum they learned what biologists use museum collections for, such as to try to understand how environmental gradients influence the characteristics of organisms. They also learned how samples are preserved in museum collections so that they can be the most useful to biologists later.
“Our primary goal was to instill in the girls a love of ecology and an appreciation of how we can understand the neat organisms we find in nature through science,” said Ostling. “I think this goal was achieved, as their favorite activities were finding organisms out on the Diag and our ‘day in the field’ at the arboretum, as well as our lab experiment on yeast, in which we found the optimal conditions for yeast population growth by seeing what temperature and pH produced the biggest balloons on top of the beakers in which the yeast were growing.
“Another key goal was to instill an appreciation of mathematics and computer simulations of mathematical models as incredibly useful tools in ecology and all sciences. Although women are increasingly better represented in ecology, they remain underrepresented in mathematical ecology. Studies show girls lose interest in mathematics around middle school. Our hope was to reverse this trend for these girls by explaining how mathematics has been instrumental in understanding ecological phenomena, and getting them to work in groups playing ‘video games’ that help them understand some of those interesting phenomena, like competitive exclusion and coexistence, and the existence of keystone species. We were a little nervous about how this would go, but the girls got really into it. We eventually had to pull them away from the computer simulations to move on to the next activity. We can report a very positive impact to report back to the NSF, whose funding through the Advancing Theory in Biology program helped support this focus group.
“An additional key goal was to introduce the girls to the relevance of ecology for the environmental challenges we face as a society. To do this we built a model of the carbon cycle using plastic containers and water, and played a ‘murder mystery’ game about the factors contributing to a die off of big horn sheep, a threatened species. These activities lead to exciting discussions about climate change and the loss of biodiversity, and the role that ecology plays in enabling us to face these challenges.
“Overall, Susanna and I found doing the focus group to be incredibly rewarding. It is a great feeling to inspire girls at this age. I told them to e-mail me if they decide to become ecologists in case I can be of some help, and one girl immediately asked for my e-mail address.”
On the questionnaires filled out after the focus group, one student who had previously been interested in being a veterinarian became interested in learning more about ecology. Another wrote, "I really liked the experiment with the yeast because it was fun to work in a lab and do an experiment and see the results." Overall, the focus group got them excited about ecology. Another wrote, "I enjoyed the ecology focus group and I learned more about the environment. I would recommend it to my friends because I think learning about our environment is very important."
Others who deserve credit for helping out include: Rosalyn Rael, a recent postdoc in Ostling’s lab, and graduate students Rafael D'Andrea, Gyuri Barabas and Tory Hendry. Hendry facilitated the loan of essential lab materials from Professor Paul Dunlap’s lab. Other WISE-GISE focus groups included chemistry, gaming for girls, engineering, human genetics and physics.
See the U-M Engineering website for more photos and a short video, hit "next" to see more images.
Pictured in back from left to right: Fei Chen, Olivia Adams, Jayleen Rossi, Anna Mae Crowley, Emily Sedgeman, Jillian Beemon, Caitlin Meadows. Front: Maria Brown, Abigail Glad.
In this article:
Messinger, Susanna; Ostling, Annette