New Funds Help Girls On Ice Canada Expand Access to Glacier Expeditions

This past month, Girls On Ice Canada was granted $25,000 through the PromoScience Program of the Natural Resource and Engineering Research Council of Canada in order to continue their inspirational and educational science program in 2019. In the summer of 2018, the organization took their first group of 10 women aged 16-17 on a free trip through Canada’s Glacier National Park.

Girls On Ice Canada is run by Inspiring Girls Expeditions, an organization that began with an expedition in 1999 to the South Cascade Glacier in Washington with a group of five girls and two instructors. Since then, it has expanded to offer a variety of programs that provide young women opportunities to explore science and nature on glaciers, water, rocks, and fjords.

With women remaining an underrepresented group in the sciences, Girls On Ice provides an environment for young women to explore their scientific interests. As Erin Pettit, founder of Girls On Ice and Inspiring Girls Expeditions, told Smithsonian, girls are socialized to avoid showing their interest or intelligence in science. “But I want to provide a space without that pressure—where the girls can show their interest, their intelligence, their strength,” she said.

Girls On Ice Canada, the newest addition to the programs offered by Inspiring Girls Expeditions, was founded by Alison Criscitiello and three others. “The idea is to serve a different population, mainly First Nations youth in Canada,” Criscitiello told GlacierHub. The Canada-based program, she explained, was a response to the number of Canadian girls applying to the US expeditions.

2018 Girls On Ice Canada participants on GlacierHub
Participants in a 2018 Girls On Ice Canada expedition pose for the camera. (Source: Alison Criscitiello)

The new Canadian program is in high demand. A press release from the University of Alberta, which houses Girls on Ice Canada, notes that over 600 girls applied to ten spots in this year’s expedition.

Criscitiello told GlacierHub that the group is aiming to expand, eventually offering two or three expeditions a year. As part of the effort to make Canada’s program accessible to as many young women as possible, this year’s expedition will involve a live session through National Geographic’s Explorer Classroom program, during which participants will have the opportunity to answer their peers’ questions from their expedition campground.

Girls On Ice isn’t only encouraging women to pursue the sciences. According to the group’s philosophy, regardless of whether participants continue with careers in the sciences, the program seeks to enable young women to “challenge themselves and gain self-confidence in their physical, intellectual, and social abilities.”

Girls On Ice Canada’s first expedition, which occurred last year, had a positive effect on Alyana Lalani. Writing in Scouting Life, she said the program “helped me change my mindset because, moving onwards in life, I know that I will get through whatever difficulty I am facing if I keep going forward.”

According to Inspiring Girls Expeditions, its expeditions are “the science version of a language immersion experience—where we connect science with all aspects of daily life with the goal of creating lifelong advocates for Earth science, specifically, and the scientific process as a whole.”

Criscitiello hopes to make the group’s 2019 expedition even more immersive. Last summer, during the group’s first expedition in Canada, the group spent the first several days of the program at a campground near the glacier due to a lack of available space, she said. “This year,” she said, “we’re heading almost immediately straight into the backcountry and cutting some of that time out in an attempt to really spend the bulk of the time with the girls in a remote location where there’s no interaction with other people and you’re really out there.”

Environmental awareness is a crucial part of this immersion. Alyana said, “During our entire expedition, my instructors stressed the Leave No Trace principles—minimum-impact outdoor activity and taking care of the environment.”

Girls On Ice Canada aims to empower young women to find confidence while pursuing research and learning to appreciate British Columbia’s glacial landscapes. It also plays a role in raising awareness about the conservation of glaciers. As Alyana said, “no matter what our goals were, protecting and respecting our environment came first.”

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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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Photo Friday: Girls on Ice

“Girls on Ice” is part of Inspiring Girls Expeditions, wilderness science education programs for high school girls between the age of 15 and 17. Each summer, the program leads an expedition of eight to nine teenage girls and three instructors with expertise in glaciology, ecology, art, and more to glaciers around the world. The program first began in 1999 when instructors Michele Koppes and Erin Petit led five girls up the south fork of the Cascade River to reach the South Cascade Glacier. Since then, there have been multiple themed programs based on the locations of the expeditions. Girls on Ice, in particular, leads an expedition to the world’s glaciers, guiding the girls to explore the environment themselves. The program aims to foster critical thinking essential for scientific inquiry and encourage these young people to break the deeply rooted gender barriers in STEM.

Below are photos taken during Girls on Ice expeditions in Canada, Alaska and Switzerland.

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Photo taken during the Girls on Ice expedition in Switzerland (Source: Inspiring Girls).


Picture taken during Girls in Icy Fjords expedition in Sewad, Alaska (Source: Inspiring Girls).


Another picture taken during the Fjord expedition (Source: Inspiring Girls).


Picture taken during the GIrls on Ice expedition in Alaska (Source: Inspiring Girls).


Picture taken during the Girls on Ice expedition in the Cascades (Source: Inspiring Girls).



Shining on a Glacier: Girls on Ice

The team fords a glacial stream to access basecamp (Source: Alexandra Ravelo).

One day last June, something rare took place on Interior Alaska’s Gulkana Glacier— a dance party. As a treat for the final day of Girls on Ice, a glacier-based science education program for teenage girls, instructors lowered each of the nine girls into a crevasse, two at a time, and they used ice axes and crampons to climb out. The day was chilly and the winds were picking up, and the girls started dancing to keep warm. “They were dancing and laughing and shining,” said glaciologist and Girls on Ice instructor Aurora Roth. “I want to hang on to that forever. That’s why I do what I do, to see girls shining in the outdoors.”

Girls on Ice began in 1999 when a team of two instructors and five teenage girls spent a week exploring the South Cascade Glacier in Washington. In 2012, a group of graduate students from the University of Alaska Fairbanks decided to adapt the program to Alaska. Each June, eight or nine girls join up with female mountain guides, scientists, and artists to spend a week on the Gulkana Glacier studying glacial processes, creating art, and exploring themes from climate change to socially-prescribed gender roles. “The wilderness setting and single gender field team inspires young women’s interest in science and provides a challenging environment that increases their physical and intellectual self-confidence,” states the program’s mission statement.

Pervasive and dangerous gender imbalances in the geosciences necessitate this focus on girls’ physical and intellectual self-confidence. M Jackson, a glaciologist and environmental educator, is troubled by gender dynamics in the sciences today. “While there are women in glaciology, it is not simply an issue of metrics, the number of women in the field, or the number of women-authored publications. I can tell you from personal experience that out in the field on glaciers, in years past, I have almost always been the only woman on the team. This is changing today,” she said.

Joanna Young, one of the founders of the Alaska Girls on Ice program, seeks to instill a diverse skill set in each girl she teaches, and show them that there are many ways to view the world. A typical day for the girls might include monitoring a snowmelt experiment near camp, a painting lesson from a visiting artist, and practicing the technical skills that allow the girls to travel in rope teams through crevassed areas. “At the end, we want to look at one landscape and see it through many lenses— as a mountaineer, assessing how to get from Point A to Point B, and what gear she’ll need; an artist, seeing color and texture; and a scientist, asking, how did these mountains come to be? Why is this rock different from that rock?”

The girls take in a lesson on the Gulkana Glacier (Source: Aurora Roth).

This interdisciplinary approach resonated with Emma Apitzsch, a 2017 Girls on Ice student who lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, and is training to be a bush pilot and mechanic. Emma reflected, “Before Girls on Ice, I had never stopped and really looked at something from an artistic perspective. Through our different activities, I got to explore new ideas and possibilities to interpret what I was seeing.”

The place-based science curriculum at the core of Girls on Ice also changed Emma’s perspective. “Already, I look at a mountain, the trees, a small plant…anything! I look at it a slight differently. I think and observe the ground I stand on a little differently too. What will it all look like in hundreds of thousands of years? Where will all of this be?” she said. “Looking through a science lens has made me question and have a special appreciation for the beauty that surrounds me.”

Jackson thinks that it’s crucial for girls to have the types of experiences like Emma and her peers did in June. “When I was a little girl, I did not even know that being a glaciologist was an option for me as a career path. I did not see female glaciologists. It is this example that makes programs such as Girls on Ice so critical— we need more programs that take girls and other marginalized peoples out into spaces that empower them,” Jackson told GlacierHub.

Glaciers are a traditionally male space, adds Roth, and that has implications for the science of glaciology. “Historically, glaciologists have been men, coinciding with the outdoors as a male space,” she observed. “There has been the introduction of a broader perspective that art and science can be same, that observations from art are equally valid for science, and these observations often overlap. I see more women utilizing this connection in glaciology.”

Honing observational skills by creating art also makes the girls better mountaineers and scientists (Source: Aurora Roth).

A recent study from the University of Oregon entitled “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research,” explored the cultural lenses that have shaped glaciology. “We do a lot of modeling and study satellite images, but what if we look at literature, at art, at drawings and recordings of glaciers?” wondered historian Mark Carey, one of the authors. “We need to be looking at the cultural lenses on how people describe and talk about their landscape.”

One of the most important and nearly-unexplored lenses is gender. In light of the traditional masculinist history of glacier research, the authors propose a “feminist glaciology,” stating that “the feminist lens is crucial given the historical marginalization of women, the importance of gender in glacier-related knowledges, and the ways in which systems of colonialism, imperialism, and patriarchy co-constituted gendered science.”

Just as a feminist perspective is needed to shape the future of glaciology, Roth and Young believe that each student’s time in a glacial landscape will shape her as she moves through the rest of her life. Though some former students have gone on to careers in glaciology, producing geoscientists isn’t the ultimate the goal of Girls on Ice. “If none of them becomes glaciologists, that’s fine. I want them to do what they want to do and have confidence in it,” Roth said. “When faced with a challenge, they’ll be able to say ‘I can do this, I spent a week on a glacier, I know what I can do.’”

The girls gear up to travel in rope teams across crevassed areas (Source: Joanna Young).

Some students from rural Alaska, Young says, have never been away from their village before. This year, a girl from California took her first flight to join the program. For all the girls, the intimate and remote setting of the glacier forces them to trust and encourage one another, and recognize the contributions each individual brings to the team. “By leaving their comfort zone, they see that they can thrive,” said Young.

Not only do girls need glaciers, but glaciers need girls. Robin Bell, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, feels the urgency of climate change. “Ice on our planet is changing fast. We need all hands on deck to get up close and personal with the ice change,” she told GlacierHub.

Girls on Ice is doing its part— founder Erin Petitt started an umbrella organization, spurred by dozens of women who have written her over the years about starting their own programs after her model. Inspiring Girls Expeditions facilitates a fjord exploration by kayak, a glacier program in the Swiss Alps, and has more, including a rock climbing program, in the works. At a time when all hands are needed on deck, these programs will help girls lead the way.

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.