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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No-Fly Zone Administered Over Glacier Crash Site

In 1952, a military plane crashed into Mount Gannett, 50 miles east of Anchorage, killing all 52 service members on board. The plane was located in 2012 at Colony Glacier, but it has taken years to retrieve the remains as rescuers can only travel to the crash site in June, when conditions are safest on the glacier. Over this time, the receding glacier has made the crash site more visible, but it has also enticed sightseers on helicopters, who risk disturbing the remains or removing artifacts. As a result, a no-fly zone has been administered this month by the Federal Aviation Administration to stop people from disturbing the crash site.

To date, 35 human remains have been repatriated, but it may take several more years to retrieve the remaining 17. The plane went down in the Chugach Mountain range, one of the snowiest locations in Alaska. During the winter of 1952-1953, in the Chugach’s Thompson Pass, a record 81 feet of snow was recorded. Colony Glacier remains dangerous due to deep crevasses, variable weather and sharp pieces of ice.

Erin Pettit, an associate professor of glaciology at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, told GlacierHub about similar plane crashes that have been buried beneath glaciers. “There are a handful around the world – at least one in Greenland and one in Antarctica. Sometimes they weren’t ‘lost’ in the sense that no one knew what happened, but they just couldn’t extract the plane,” she said. “The plane was absorbed by the glacier and won’t re-emerge for hundreds or even thousands of years, depending on where it landed and how big the glacier is.”

When a plane crashes into a glacier, it is covered by snowfall and over time freezes into the glacier. When the glacier moves downslope, the plane moves along with it, until it is later revealed at the front of the glacier. Warmer temperatures speed this process up.

Flowpath of Colony Glacier (Source: Bob McNabb).

Bob McNabb, a glaciologist at the University of Alaska, calculated the speed and trajectory of the flowpath of the Colony Glacier and made a map for GlacierHub. Using a back-of-the-envelope calculation, McNabb said the plane traveled 23 kilometers along the flowpath, which means it would have traveled one meter per year. Using this analysis, which involved the use of satellites, McNabb calculated that the average surface velocity would have been about 1.5 meters per year.

Michael Loso, a physical scientist at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, told GlacierHub that Colony Glacier has a velocity of about 3 feet per day, saying, “That’s fast but not unreasonably fast for a big Alaskan glacier.”

Alaska has a higher rate of plane crashes than the rest of the United States for reasons like frequent inclement weather, jagged terrain, which can be obscured by clouds, and the fact that flying is the only way to get to certain remote places. The cause of the 1952 crash has never been determined.

Loso added that such crashes at glaciers are not that uncommon, saying, “Many glaciers are in mountains, and planes run into mountains every once in awhile.”

Girls Breaking Ground on Ice

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.

(Photo: Facebook)
Young women who participate in the program represent a variety of backgrounds and geographic locations. (Photo: Facebook)

 

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.

GOI Poster

 

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 partner with professionals in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of their new environment. (Photo: Facebook)
The young women partner with professionals in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of their new environment. (Photo: Facebook)

 

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.”

The program allows the young women to grow as scholars, but also allows personal reflection time. (Photo: Facebook)
The program allows the young women to grow as scholars, but also allows personal reflection time. (Photo: Facebook)

 

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.