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Attracting More Girls to Science: Hands-on Experiences and Mentors Are Key

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2007
OSA and the Girl Scouts team up to encourage an early interest in science.

Elizabeth A. Rogan, Optical Society of America

When Thomas M. Baer took his daughter Christina to the annual meeting of the Optical Society of America in 1997, he never realized that he would be shaping the 14-year-old’s career path. At the time, her excitement centered on wanting to be a jet pilot and on the conference’s scheduled laser eye surgery session. She hoped to hear that a new technique could provide her with the perfect vision she would need to fly.

But once she got to the meeting, Christina was absorbed in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The announcement of the year’s Nobel Prize in physics coincided with the annual meeting, and there was talk that the recipient could be an OSA member. Sure enough, when the prize was announced in the predawn hours, member William D. Phillips, in collaboration with Steven Chu and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, was one of the recipients honored for his work in laser cooling.


Professor Anthony M. Johnson, director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Photonics Research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, explains to local area Girl Scouts how laser systems work.

Christina’s father, the conference chairman and OSA’s current vice president, made congratulatory calls at 4 a.m. and organized a press event to honor Phillips, who happened to be on-site to attend the meeting. As a bystander, Christina witnessed a momentum and excitement over science that she had never encountered before. OSA staff recruited her to help organize the press conference. She was given a walkie-talkie and a clipboard and assigned to direct the press corps to the conference room. It was a tremendous opportunity to meet some of the foremost minds in physics. It was then that Christina realized that she wanted to be a part of this inventive, discovery-oriented world.

And this was not her first brush with the great power of science. Before being awed by such Nobel-winning achievements, she was introduced at the tender age of 10 to the ways in which science affects everyday life. Through her school’s gifted and talented program, she was given a project to help the handicapped. Her plan was to help the blind by using a scanner to transmit label information to a voice synthesizer which, in turn, would provide audio of the product’s ingredients. Working with her father, Christina developed a prototype of this device and took it to the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, where she saw her product helping people live easier lives.

These experiences certainly had a profound impact on her future. Today, Christina E. Baer is working toward her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, and is focusing her research on the molecular and structural basis for protein recognition and signaling in tuberculosis.

Maintaining interest

Stories like this reveal just how much influence our early years have on the decisions we make as adults. Christina Baer was lucky. She had tremendous scientific exposure from an early age and a father who could impart a passion for scientific exploration. But what about the young women who do not grow up with this? How can these women be encouraged and inspired in the way that Christina was?

Meg Milne Moulton, co-executive director of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools in Concord, Mass., understands the importance of science in her schools’ curricula and tells a poignant story about science education. When some middle school female students were asked to describe their feelings about science, one particular response struck her: “Math and science are like quicksand,” one student said. “The only way I can be safe is for someone to pull me out.”

The problem with engaging girls in science, technology, engineering and math is implicit in that response. Young women often believe that these fields are difficult to understand and almost impossible to master, so it is clear that we have to reach them and inspire a passion for these fields at an early age.

Further supporting this assertion are data that show women in particular are disproportionately represented in the physical sciences. Although women hold more than 45 percent of all PhDs, they have only 14 percent of physics degrees. What is more, 47 percent of all high school students in physics are female, but only 21 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics are earned by women. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as a “leaky pipeline,” because, although there are plenty of females in the high school pool, many of them do not continue with advanced studies in science.

The pivotal time frame to reach young minds is middle school. Reports show that this is the period when many students start thinking about a career path. It is when they consider science as a career option or simply as a course required for graduation. It is also the age when girls’ scores on standardized scientific tests seem to plateau, with comparative scores between the US and other countries worsening as students grow older. Thus, it is critical to find ways to reach young women before and during their middle school years. Programs to inspire interest in science have to start at a very early age to have long-term results.

Girl Scouts reach out

Under the leadership of Gary Bjorklund, the OSA Foundation has formed a partnership with the Girl Scouts of the USA to do just that. By creating an optics workbook that can be disseminated by troop leaders and completed by the girls, the foundation is trying to ensure that optics and photonics are becoming key components of the educational programs already in place. These workbooks have hands-on experiments — such as making a telescope, creating a “private rainbow” and simulating a sunset — to help girls learn fundamental principles about light in an active, experimental and fun environment.

Visiting Girl Scouts get a hands-on tour of a working laser laboratory at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In one recent program, 16 girls from the Central Maryland Girl Scout Council and the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital visited the optics laboratory at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Not only were they able to conduct the workbook experiments, but they also had a private tour of the university’s optics lab, where they saw working laser systems, optical fibers and cleanrooms. The experiments, coupled with the tour, provided a real-world research-to-marketplace example of how scientific principles translate to products common in everyday life.

The workbooks will be tested with 10 councils before being rolled out to a broader audience. To increase awareness of the program among Girl Scout council leaders, the OSA Foundation participated in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Learning and Networking Conference hosted by the Girl Scouts in May. The event allowed society members to meet with council leaders from around the US and to present the optics workbook and other available tools. Council leaders talked with staff from the OSA Foundation about ways to incorporate this information into their activities. One California council, the Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, requested speakers and materials for its summer camp program, which reaches upward of 2000 girls.

After the conference, the Girl Scouts of Mount Wilson Vista Council in the greater San Gabriel Valley area of California held an event using the optics workbook. The girls’ excitement about the experiments grew as they went through the exercises. In fact, the council leader said that the first question she was asked after the program was, “Do we get to keep the books?” Numerous others were absorbed in their books immediately, working on new activities and explaining light concepts to other girls.

Working with the Girl Scouts is only one way that the OSA Foundation is reaching out to girls and exposing them to optics. The organization has tool kits, optics suitcases, videos, TV news segments and many other resources available to provide interesting, innovative programs that help instill an excitement for science in young women. However, it takes more than just having the right tools to make this happen. It takes more than just one scientific society’s programs to have an impact. It takes dedicated volunteers across many disciplines to bring science to life for girls.

What can we as a community do to encourage more young women to explore science? We can get involved by visiting local schools and teaching optics lessons. We can offer support to local girls’ clubs and Girl Scout troops. We can find ways to make science — particularly optics and photonics — engaging on different levels. If each of us takes these small steps in our own communities, the collective results will resonate worldwide.

Through dedication and a little of our time, we can improve the statistics and see more women entering all the fields of science.

Meet the author

Elizabeth A. Rogan is executive director of the Optical Society of America in Washington, D.C.; e-mail:

laser cooling
A process and method by which manipulation and orientation of a given number of directed laser beams decreases the motion of a group of atoms or molecules such that their internal thermodynamic temperatures reach near absolute zero. The 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Steven Chu, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William D. Phillips for the development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light.
The processes in which luminous energy incident on the eye is perceived and evaluated.
CommunicationsFeatureslaser coolingvisionlasers

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