Charlotte summer camp helps girls crack into the male-dominated science world

Rory Vallimont and Ana Lucia Arronte look through kaleidoscopes they made in a project that helped them understand how light works at Project Scientist.
Rory Vallimont and Ana Lucia Arronte look through kaleidoscopes they made in a project that helped them understand how light works at Project Scientist. JDHud@charlotteobserver.com

School is out for the summer, but the girls at Project Scientist – an all-girls science camp in Charlotte – have a test to take.

The challenge before them: draw a scientist. The test was first given in 1983, when about 5,000 students were given a blank piece of paper to sketch their idea of a scientist. Only 28 drew women.

And 33 years later, camp founder Sandy Marshall said the results are strikingly similar. When the girls are asked to draw a scientist before camp begins, most of them draw men with stereotypical features: wiry white hair and mustaches, oversized lab coats and bubbling beakers.

This is why she started Project Scientist: to fight the stereotype that often constrains young girls from moving forward in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, fields that are still three-quarters male.

Her hope of creating a space for girls to build a community of like-minded learners is coming to fruition through Project Scientist. Marshall said by the end of the six-week camp, the girls are asked to take it again. This time, they draw significantly more females. Some of the girls – whose ages range from 4 to 12 – even draw themselves.

The dream developed in her guest house during 2011, when she wanted to encourage her 4-year-old’s love of science. Now, the program has 306 girls who meet over a span of six weeks at UNC Charlotte’s Center City building. It has locations in Pasadena and Los Angeles, as well.

Marshall said she doesn’t need to explain why this program is crucial in California’s tech-oriented communities, but Charlotte still has learning to do. “We need to educate the parents and the community about how the needs that girls have are different than boys,” she said.

Of course, Marshall said, not every girl has ambitions of having a career in STEM. But she fears for the ones who do, who might not feel confident or intelligent enough to compete with boys in the classroom or workplace.

Marshall’s fear is backed statistically. Only 24 percent of women make up the STEM workforce – a stark contrast to the almost even split in the workforce overall.

In a partnership with Harvard University and UNC Charlotte, Marshall said, they’ve found that 78 percent of girls in school have an interest in STEM. But compared with the percentage of women actually in the field, she said, it’s troubling so many girls are getting lost along the way.

In a report by the American Association of University Women, researchers concluded that increasing the percentage of women in STEM will maximize innovation, creativity and competitiveness. It also found there’s a smaller gender wage gap compared to other, non-STEM occupations.

Lack of role models

Marshall understands how some girls get lost along the way. She was a biology major with hopes of becoming a doctor, but the challenges she faced in college felt insurmountable.

She had few female professors and most of her classmates were male. Another common obstacle, researchers have found, is that many women become discouraged when they fall short of perfection. That was the case for Marshall, too.

She said one of the reasons she gave up on her medical ambitions was because she felt her grades weren’t good enough. She didn’t like the idea of just getting by.

“That is something we try to teach our girls,” she said. “You don’t need an A or a B, you just need to get through. I needed someone to tell me that.”

In addition to the pressure to be perfect, Marshall said another challenge is the stereotype that men are better and more successful in math and science.

Researchers from Yale University found it also carries into the professional world. In a 2012 study, over 100 science faculty members at colleges across the country were asked to evaluate one of two student resumes.

The only difference? One resume was for “John,” and one was for “Jennifer.”

Researchers determined faculty members were more likely to perceive John as competent and select him for a lab manager position. They also offered John a higher salary and more mentoring opportunities than Jennifer.

It’s a reality that impacted Stacie Gregory, a researcher for AAUW, when she was working toward a PhD in material sciences. She said she experienced “stereotype threat,” a phenomenon that says if you are in constant fear you will confirm a stereotype about your group, it will impact your learning.

“I quit after five years because the treatment was so unbearable,” she said. As a black woman, she said she felt like no one else in her classes looked like her. “It was too much to be in an environment that was very unfriendly to women,” she said, adding that though she recently finished a PhD in engineering education, it took a while for her to rebuild her confidence.

Lauren Bacon, author and co-founder of web design and development agency Raised Eyebrow Web Studio Inc., said the stereotypes can translate into harsh environments like Gregory’s, which makes following through difficult.

“Our society rewards people for being normal and does not reward people for being outside the norm,” she said. It’s a systemic issue that she said “is going to require a thousand different interventions.”

Among the solutions, she said, is having highly visible role models for girls. It’s a solution supported by research, which concludes that when role models describe how they overcame their own challenges, students see struggles and failures as normal.

It’s also supported by Marshall and the design of Project Scientist. Each morning begins with appearances from women who work in STEM, known as “STEM Superstars,” so the girls have an opportunity to meet engineers, coders, mathematicians, scientists and other professionals who look like them.

Wells Fargo, which provided a grant for curriculum development this year, is one of several organizations in Charlotte that provide STEM Superstars for the girls. Jeff Austin, Wells Fargo’s senior vice president for environmental affairs, said they have hosted expeditions for several years, where female senior executives talk to the girls about careers in mathematics.

For 6-year-old Lily Harrison, the expeditions are the best part of camp. She’s the daughter of Observer reporter Steve Harrison, but she plans on following a different career path – she hopes to be a marine biologist one day. She said their recent trip to Reedy Creek Park was fun because she got to see a lot of creatures, “even a spider.”

Marshall said that Project Scientist welcomes girls as young as 4 because intervening in their lives at a young age is the best way to build up their confidence. Not only does it retain their interest, but she said by the time girls are entering into their teens, they can be a part of the scholars program, which is for 13- to 15-year-olds.

As scholars, girls follow a strategic goal-development program, where they assemble business plans and discuss their futures. Mariah, 12, will be old enough to be a scholar next year, but for now, her favorite part about Project Scientist is the constant encouragement from the female classroom leaders.

They give the girls space to fail, learn and triumphantly move forward. Most importantly, they teach that persistence will always be more valuable than perfection.

“They teach us to do the best we can do,” Mariah said.