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  • The path from inquisitive girls to women scientists

  • The two young girls are communing with their beloved bugs. The pint-sized zoologists spent the afternoon collecting specimens from under rocks, leaves and even underground. Now the snails, slugs and worms are ready for viewing in an exhibit worthy of Ashland's ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum.
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  • The two young girls are communing with their beloved bugs. The pint-sized zoologists spent the afternoon collecting specimens from under rocks, leaves and even underground. Now the snails, slugs and worms are ready for viewing in an exhibit worthy of Ashland's ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum.
    A steady stream of adults wind their way to the glass-topped picnic table as Elizabeth and Cameron explain the ins and outs of their collections.
    A clear line of demarcation ensures the snails stay on one side of the table and the slugs on the other. When one of the slugs tries to cross the boundary, it is quickly returned to the eastern end of the table.
    "Oh, no, you don't," Elizabeth admonishes Speedy.
    A flat rock serves as a feeding station featuring green munchibles. An array of empty snail shells are carefully arranged by size. The worms have burrowed deep into their cup. Not very interactive, Elizabeth notes, poking her finger into the soil.
    The relative speeds of the snails is on Cameron's mind as she peers at the pinky-nail-sized snail jetting its way across her small hand.
    "The smaller ones are faster," she notes.
    Elizabeth generously offers up the narrow fellow slithering along her wrist to the circle of adults.
    "Did you want to hold a slug?" she asks.
    I pass on the opportunity, recounting how I once sat on a banana slug. It's slime left an itchy, irritated welt on the back of my bare leg.
    "I might be allergic," I say.
    My story elicits a topper from my sister, who recounts her own experience of stepping on a banana slug on the isle of Bermuda — while she was barefoot and nine months pregnant.
    "Something oozed up between ALL my toes," Sis said. "I didn't know what it was. I was afraid to step forward or back."
    Some may think bug collecting is a peculiar interest for little girls. Isn't it boys who are supposed to be made of "snips and snails," etc.?
    But I have vivid memories of spending summer afternoons collecting pill bugs from under the smooth, black Rosarita stones that surrounded our bird of paradise plants.
    I housed them in large cardboard mansions created painstakingly from the pieces of cardboard that came in my father's dry-cleaned shirts. I'd work late into the evening on their palatial estates, coming back inside only when my mother would insist. I'd bound back out onto the front porch at first light, but was always disappointed to see the rollie-pollies had used their bazillion legs to race back to their rocks.
    Ingrates. Maybe if I'd also fabricated some furniture?
    Earlier that day, the girls went on a commercial jet-boat ride down the Rogue. As the boat raced across the water, everyone was enjoying the splashfest. But Cameron also was keeping an eagle eye out for raptors. She kept a running tally of the number and species of avians viewed, Sis said.
    As I watched these curious, science-minded young girls, it occurred to me that Elizabeth's mother once wanted to be an oceanographer. I had hoped to become a veterinarian. I doubt anyone actively discouraged Marie and me from following our dreams. Somehow we ended up following other paths. Or maybe it wasn't as "somehow" as I'd assumed.
    I excelled at life sciences during high school. Then, like a lot of students, I got totally lost in college chemistry. And that was the end of that dream.
    I should have gotten a tutor. I should have tried harder. But I didn't.
    The part that sticks in my craw is I remember feeling I was fulfilling gender-norm expectations the day I transferred my major from animal science to communications. It was sad to yield the dream of becoming a large-animal vet. Yet I pathetically accepted my "fate." My bad.
    I called Summer Brandon, ScienceWorks' education manager, to ask a few questions about girls and science. And what we can do to make sure these girls don't get messages that they're somehow an aberration. Or worse.
    When it comes to gender balance in the sciences, things are pretty equal in the earlier grades. But as the years roll on, the ratio swings and boys outnumber girls dramatically. Young women enrolling in science tracks in college is "definitely on the upswing." But still well below half, Summer says.
    The good and bad news is that what we say to children has an impact. And gender-biased messages can be blatant or subtle, Summer says.
    Hearing an adult praise a girl's idea is a great one. Asking what their observations are about their creation is more intellectually affirming than offering a gender-stereotypical response like "that's a cute house," Summer says.
    Even a little girl who enjoys playing dolls might be looking at the toy and pondering the miracles of the human form, she says.
    "She might be thinking about anatomy," Summer says.
    "Ask about their hypothesis and their formulation. Not how it looks or tastes," Summer says.
    Elizabeth and Cameron are on the right path for a career in the sciences, Summer notes. Loving science — finding it fun and interesting — is a better indicator for successful continuation of study in that field than math or reading scores, she adds.
    Elizabeth's mother says both girls are enrolled in a charter school that emphasizes math, science and technology. Who knows what these two dynamos will end up doing with their lives? Maybe they'll build the world's first Garden Crawler Museum, or head off to Mars, or even find a cure for cancer.
    Whatever they do, I hope they have enough confidence in their smarts that they continue to follow their dreams. No matter what anyone says or doesn't say.
    "I'd like my snail back now, please," Elizabeth says.
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