Girls Writing Science

How 24 high school girls in Arizona saw a vision of their futures in science.

Twenty four adolescent girls sat at their desks as Jessica Early read The Watcher, a children’s book about Jane Goodall, a famous anthropologist and animal rights activist, on the first day of the Girls Writing Science project. The room fell silent. “Jane, Jane, Where are you?” “Jane can you hear me?” Everyone had been searching for hours and hours, looking for little Valerie Jane Goodall (p. 1).” Jane was full of curiosity even as a young child. She fell in love with animals, beginning with her own backyard chickens. As an adult, Goodall devoted her life to researching apes in Africa. As an anthropologist and activist, she advocated for the protection and preservation of animals through science. As Early finished reading, she asked the group of adolescent girls if they had ever heard of Goodall before this story. No one responded. Then, Marissa, a ninth grade student, shot her hand up and blurted out, “I never knew there were people who studied monkeys for a job! I want to do that! How do I do that?”

An intention in creating and implementing the GWS project was to provide high school girls with opportunities to use literacy as a way to imagine and dream themselves in connection to science careers and pathways. In this case, the educators were from the Central Arizona Writing Project at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, and the Arizona Science Center. The 24 high school girls were from the ASU Preparatory Academy. The teachers were part of the Intersections Project, which investigates the intersections of literacy and science via strategic partnerships.

The girls were largely Latina, many from first-generation immigrant families whose primary language was Spanish, and were meeting weekly for seven weeks during their study hall period to learn about, engage with, and imagine themselves in connection to science related careers and pathways.

“Our goal is to encourage these young women to learn about science careers and fields of study and think, ‘I can do this,’” said Christina Saidy, a member of the design team.

That’s important, said Saidy, because although the number of women in the sciences has grown considerably, a sizable imbalance remains in their representation among science majors and jobs in the sciences. In addition, too few women have access to role models in connection to science in their communities and schools.

As Early wrote in a journal article, each meeting of the GSW project involved teaching, modeling, and practicing of writing to link the girls to women in science careers. A first step for the girls was to read about women in the sciences. The girls made their way around a series of posters displayed in a gallery format in the classroom with biographies of women scientists, looking for a woman whose work they admired, or who was interesting but unfamiliar, or whose work they wanted to know more about.The girls then practiced interviewing techniques, writing questions they’d like to ask and considering how they might write a story about that woman. They thought about how an interview could help answer a question they might have, like how to deal with not receiving credit for work you’ve done with others—as was the case for physicist Lise Meitner, who was excluded from the Nobel Prize awarded to her colleague for their work on nuclear fission and radioactivity in the 1930s.

Eventually, the girls would use those new skills in an actual interview with a female scientist they were paired with from the community. The women they would interview were in science careers the girls might like to pursue.

The girls crafted interview protocols to assist in finding what they wanted to know from their interviewee and in moving their thinking forward about their future selves in relation to science. For example, Sara was interested in becoming a technician in a science lab, but she did not know how to move toward this dream. She used the interview as an opportunity to ask questions about the logistics of this work (e.g. what do you do working in a lab? And what does it mean to be a tech?) and to help her make a decision to move forward with this career choice (e.g. what age did you figure out you wanted to be a lab technician? And, did you ever want to do something else when you are young?). Sara wanted help judging her own levels of certainty about this career path.

This whole workshop reminded me of what it means to set students up for success.”

Early and Saidy set out to find women in science for the girls to interview in the community by emailing professors at the local university, reaching out to mothers of their children’s friends, and cold calling public and private community businesses. One student was particularly interested in speaking with an oncologist. “I tried multiple connections to no avail,” Saidy wrote in the journal article. “I talked to physicians and nurses I knew, called a local children’s hospital and talked to the community outreach coordinator, and even sent emails to unknown oncologists.” She eventually found a pediatrician who was willing to be interviewed. Although the interviewee was not an oncologist, the student “was happy to talk to a pediatrician who could tell her more about the differences in training, professional practice, and lifestyle differences between a pediatrician and pediatric oncologist,” Saidy wrote.

This kind of flexibility and thinking on one’s feet is what it takes to make projects like this happen. It also takes “the sense that it is possible and that the world beyond the classroom walls is available for and cares for students,” the team wrote.

The women who agreed to be interviewed were thrilled to be of help and expressed enthusiasm and interest in the project. For example, when Early reached out to a pediatrician by email, she responded, “I would love to participate! This is such a cool project!”

Students were delighted and surprised by the interview responses from their paired women in science. The engagement with the women scientists from the community made this project more than an assignment and, instead, something students were deeply invested in, responsible for, and connected to. An archaeologist, for example, wrote back to one of the girls who had asked about her career trajectory, fears, and obstacles to meeting her goals. In her email, the scientist talked about the challenges of being a first-generation college student, studying chemistry and archaeology as a woman, and traveling alone to Bolivia, Peru, and Chile to excavate archaeological sites. “However,” Saidy later wrote in a journal article on the experience, “[she] also made it clear that a motivating factor for her in her career is providing access for other women. She wrote: ‘One thing that motivates me is the importance of being a role model as a scientist who is also a woman. I didn’t have many examples of that growing up, and even in college and graduate school I wasn’t sure it was possible to be a scientist and also be a parent and well-rounded person. I really love being a scientist, and a woman, and a parent, so I want to show others, especially girls and women, that it is possible.’”

Students held agency throughout this process, from selecting the kind of scientist they wanted to interview, writing interview questions, and initiating, conducting, and writing up the interviews.

“This whole workshop reminded me of what it means to set students up for success,” Early wrote in the report. “We, as researchers and teachers, have the opportunities to provide students with valuable, real-world literacy opportunities to expand their visions of what is possible in their future lives.”

The workshop will have lasting impact. The Intersections team has created curricular materials to share widely with others. They are creating a two-week intensive camp for girls on writing and science, with the hope of drawing in more high school girls. They are also making new partnerships with informal science educator groups. “This program will create new bridges between the university and the community, between [our project] and the science community at ASU, and adolescent girls and women scientists in Arizona,” the team wrote.

View the Girls Science Writing Curriculum Calendar.