Inspiring Girls Expeditions: Encouraging the Next Generation of Women Scientists

Women made up less than a quarter of those employed in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in 2015 in the United States. Only 35 percent of students who pursued these fields, whether at the undergraduate, masters, or Ph.D level, were women. For women of color these numbers are significantly lower—about 10 percent

An organization called Inspiring Girls Expeditions has spent the last 20 years encouraging girls to pursue STEM-related fields. This outdoor-education program provides 16 and 17-year-old girls an opportunity to create and learn in the outdoors. Erin Pettit, the group’s director and founder, began one the group’s core programs, known as Girls on Ice, in 1999. As a graduate student, Pettit lead a field course at the University of Washington where participants navigated unmarked trails and made their way to the South Cascade Glacier. After the first semester, only women were registered and Pettit liked the dynamic. Pettit and others began writing grants to provide a free course to women who wanted to go out and explore nature and conduct scientific research. Thus, Girls on Ice Washington began.

Participants rope up as they venture into the accumulation zone of the Gulkana Glacier in the Alaska Range (Source: Joanna Young/Inspiring Girls Expeditions).

Inspiring Girls Expedition now sponsors programs in Washington, Alaska, Canada, and Switzerland. The excursions explore not only glaciers; girls have an opportunity to apply for Girls on Water, a kayaking trip in Kachemak Bay, Alaska, as well as Girls on Rock, a climbing-focused trip in White River National Forest in Colorado.  

All trips are free and participants are provided all of the equipment they will need: backpacks, helmets, and crampons, for example. Inspiring Girls Expedition asks applicants about their day-today lives so they can get an idea of who might benefit most from exploring science outside of the classroom. Those applicants might be girls who work to help support their families, are the first in their family to pursue college, or have never left their hometowns.

A participant measures the temperature of sub-debris ice as part of a field experiment. (Source: Joanna Young/Inspiring Girls Expeditions)

Inspiring Girls Expedition programs typically run for about 10 days. During the trips, girls work with field researchers, glaciologists, kayak guides, mountaineers, and artists. From the moment they meet on the first day, they are surrounded solely by women. By showcasing women in STEM fields, the program hopes that participating girls can imagine themselves being able to succeed in these fields.

Joanna Young, cofounder of Girls on Ice Alaska, is an example of the gender shift the group seeks to encourage. Growing up looking at the night sky, Young always had an appreciation for science. She pursued physics and astronomy as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia. She recalls that about 10 percent of her cohort were women, and just 5 percent of the faculty were women. In many of her classes, she said, women stuck together, often working on group projects together.

“The men had numbers on their side and role models to look up to even if those people were not mentors,” Young said. “They had a lot more evidence by looking at the faculty and professors that people like them could probably succeed in this field if they want to.”  

Inspiring Girls Expeditions provides a space for girls to see what real field work looks like.  Young said the girls’ awareness of the discrepancy between men and women in the field often brings up questions about what it looks like to be a woman in science. Young explained that that there are no taboos with the girls; the women share their experiences, the good and the bad. What is more important is “creating this network of women who are there to support each other in the long term. Ten years from now if one of them contacts us, we absolutely remember them and are still there to help.”

A participant takes a break during a bid for an Alaska Range summit. (Source: Joanna Young/Inspiring Girls Expeditions)

Though the program is still developing ways to track how many girls actually go on to purse a career in the science, it is clear that it has made an impact on many alumni. Two graduates of the program are now instructors, while others have embarked on careers in wildlife biology, engineering, and environmental science. Young recalls one girl in particular who decided to pursue a Ph.D in glaciology, noting that Girls on Ice was critical in choice.

“A lot of the mission designed around showing girls that STEM is accessible to them,” Young explained. “This is an opportunity to break down stereotypes and show that scientist are real people too. We can tell our stories about how we ended up in science.”  

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