Women in Chemistry
Science Club for Girls

It is 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternnon at the Cambridgeport Elementary School in Cambridge, Mass., and the final bell has rung. Students exit from all doors, heading to after-school programs and activities. For a group of elementary school girls, their school day will not end until 3:45 pm, after they have met in their weekly Science
Club for Girls.

This particular Thursday is the first day of Science Club for Girls at the Cambridgeport School, and the students have many questions. “Can we make ice cream like we did last time?” one fourth grader requested. A kindergarten student asked, “Why is Science Club for Girls only for girls? Why is there no Science Club for Boys?” Another student replied, “We love to learn so that girls can be smarter than boys.”

In the fifth and sixth grade room, the girls were learning about the ocean. “How deep is the ocean?” asked one student. “Does oil really come out of the ocean?” The group leader, a college student volunteer, patiently fielded their questions. “Oil comes out of rocks at the very bottom of the ocean,” she replied. She reminded them that, “science is about asking questions you don’t know the answer to.”

History of the Organization

Science Club for Girls was started in 1994 by a group of parents who formed a Gender Issues in Education Committee at the King Open School in Cambridge to address discrepancies in the science education of girls and boys in elementary school. Fifteen years later, the program provides free afterschool and weekend science clubs for 400 girls in grades K-12. Connie Chow, who has been the executive director of Science Club for Girls for the past two and half years, has overseen a substantial expansion of the program. During Dr. Chow’s tenure, new clubs have been started in Lawrence, Boston and Framingham. The number of girls participating in the program has increased by approximately 30%.

Organizational Structure

The girls meet at various locations in the Boston area once per week after school. The club is divided by grade, with approximately 8 to 12 students per grade. Each club is led by a mentor- scientist, typically a graduate student or college student majoring in the sciences. There are junior assistants (JAs) as well, who are students in grades 8-12 who help the mentor-scientists with that day’s curriculum. The junior assistants receive separate career guidance and counseling, in which female scientists come to discuss the details involved in a career in science. The JAs also attend field trips to see how science can be applied to their daily lives. Past trips included the Art Restoration Department at the Museum of Fine Arts and the New England Culinary Institute.

The curriculum for the students varies substantially by grade. Dr. Chow described the curriculum as “hands on,” and designed to show the students that science is fun, and that “there are everyday things they could use to explore scientific phenomenon.”

For example, in the fourth grade classroom at Cambridgeport, the group leader informed the students that the topic for the semester would be engineering. “What is engineering?” Ms. Kareen Wilkinson, the Cambridge Program Manager of Science Club for Girls, asked. The replies came quickly. “Engineering is something you do and it helps the world.” “[Engineers] take stuff apart and then put it back together.” “Design cars.” “Help NASA.”

After the discussion of engineering the girls moved into the hands-on experiment for the day - building a load tester out of straws, cupcake holders, and paper clips. At the conclusion of the experiment, the girls competed to see how many Skittles their load testers could hold before the testers collapsed. The girls’ prize? They could eat all of the Skittles held by their load tester. At 3:45 p.m., when parents and older siblings began arriving to take the girls home, the students pleaded for “just one more minute,” as they patiently added Skittles, one at a time, to their newly constructed load testers.

Goals and Philosophy

One of the key goals of the organization, said Dr. Chow, is to make sure “that science is accessible and available to as many as possible.”

“What we are trying to say is that science is for everyone,” Dr. Chow said. “Science is not only performed in highly sophisticated environments… There are people like you, there are women like you, who are doing science.”

Science Club for Girls focuses particularly on students from underrepresented groups. Over 75% of the participants are girls of color. Many of the students are from lower income households. Furthermore, more than half of the JAs will be the first generation in their families to go to college. Dr. Chow spoke about one former JA from a single-parent home. “I think her mother’s ambition for her was to graduate from high school and work in a local retail store,” Dr. Chow said. “She went to Oxford.”

The mentor-scientists, said Dr. Chow, play an invaluable role. “One of the reasons that we call them ‘mentor scientists’ is [because of] the idea that these mentors are interested in the growth and development of these girls.” The girls “know that someone else has a stake in them. Knowing that they have a support system in the world…gives them confidence.”

Naomi Jiang, a mentor-scientist who is an undergraduate student at MIT studying biology, said she develops a relationship with the girls. “I think it is really good to have programs like these where you introduce younger children to a field that they may not have thought about going into,” Ms. Jiang said. The program allowed her to “expose [students to science] and have them start thinking about science at a younger age.” Ms. Jiang, who has been a mentor-scientist for two semesters, said she has been amazed at the students’ enthusiasm. “I am surprised by how much second graders know…you say one thing and they can relate it to so many examples.”

Plans for Future Growth

Science Club for Girls is funded entirely by donations from foundations, private companies and individuals. To date, Dr. Chow said, the organization has not needed to turn away interested participants. However, further expansion of the program would require increased funding. In the future, Dr. Chow said, she would like to collaborate with additional community centers, schools, and universities to bring the program to more girls.

“There are not enough of these programs around,” Dr. Chow stated. “We would love to grow a movement whereby college students, university professors and women who are working in companies all feel like they can take our program and start their own branch.” In this way, she will be able to ensure that girls who are underserved continue to have opportunities like participating in Science Club for Girls.

Dr. Chow concluded with a broader view of the culture of science and its attitude toward women and other underrepresented groups. “Organizations like Science Club for Girls are doing our part to broaden the understanding of science and to get girls interested in science. At the end of the day, it is institutions that must actually change their culture to really make it welcoming for everyone.”

For more information about Science Club for Girls, visit their website at www.scienceclubforgirls.org, where you can see videos of the girls, read more about the history of the program, and find ways to donate time and/or money to the organization.