As a student, I had no idea that I ever wanted to study anything related to science- much less the “hard” sciences. Often, I was pointed in the direction of social science because of my writing ability and creativity. Although my high school days weren’t long ago, this experience is common among young women due to archaic stereotypes that have yet to be dismantled. Luckily, there are some female professionals in the hard sciences, such as Dr. Erin Pettit, glaciologist and founder of the Girls on Ice Program, who are trying new approaches to open corridors in science for young ladies.
Sponsored by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Girls on Ice is a free science, mountaineering, and art wilderness program for young women ages 16-18. Each year, two teams of nine young women and three instructors spend twelve days on unforgettable expeditions: one trip explores Mount Baker, an ice-covered volcano in Washington, and the other trip allows the young women to experience the majesty of Alaska’s Gulkana Glacier. The young women selected for the teams explore these unique landscapes with professional mountaineers, ecologists, artists, and glaciologists, and all of the instructors are women.
The program stretches the young women mentally and physically by prompting them to observe, to question, and to experiment while trekking through rough terrain. Although the focus is scientific research, the physical elements cannot be overlooked. “We don’t baby them. They have to set up tents, cook, do everything,” declared Dr. Pettit to the National Science Teachers Association. Over the course of the expedition, the girls are challenged to design and conduct a pinnacle experiment about the environment; during the 2009 expedition, one participant used time-lapse imagery to correlate local weather and glacial melt. She found that air temperature and sunshine have a direct effect on the melt rates of ice and snow cover, thus affecting the pace of water-flow in glacial streams. After the expedition, the young women are invited to synthesize their field research and present it to a public audience, which sometimes includes members from the local geoscience community.
The young women on the Girls on Ice team gain both physical and intellectual confidence, leadership skills, and inspiration for future achievement. Yet, along with stimulating the minds of the young women, the program has benefits for society as it helps to close the gap between the numbers of women and men involved in science occupations. According to National Geographic, women make up a meager 26% of the individuals devoted to science, technology, engineering, and math occupations; although that number has been increasing slightly over the years, “gender bias has affected research outcomes.” Programs like Girls on Ice help to ameliorate these injustices by providing unique opportunities for girls to experience the grandeur and marvel inherent in scientific discovery. As stated by one of the participants, “I am inspired to do anything! In the van ride back I was looking out the window at the amazing scenery and the bright blue sky and I felt so great and excited for life.”
Dr. Pettit stated in her feature in Smithsonian, “My goal is not to turn these girls into scientists. My goal is to provide the kind of critical-thinking skills that are necessary for science-and for everything else we do in life.” The aim is to inspire these young women to become not just scientists, but also “future teachers, journalists, lawyers, and businesswomen who are advocates for the scientific process.” Therefore, this program and other field science experiences for high school students offer a promising outlook on the importance of preserving glaciers and their magnificent environments. Not only are these areas important for their immediate ecosystems, but they have the potential to inspire the curiosity and achievement of many generations to come.