At the start of every workshop, I make a startling confession: I used to be the girl who would scream for her daddy when a spider was near. I'd cry, shake, and often be paralyzed in my bed (especially that one time when a spider was on my nightlight, and it cast a huge moving spider shadow on the wall by my head. That time, my sister, brave girl, ran to wake my father to come and save the day—to kill the spider and make me feel safe.) I was that girl.
So, how did I get to be this girl? The arachnid-studying, adventure-loving, no-fear-mantra-slinging Bug Chick? I never imagined that this would be my life. I never knew I had it in me. But somewhere along the way I made a choice to be brave, open my mind, and learn. We ask each student to make that choice during our workshops. You’ll never know who you could be, unless you push yourself to be brave.
On March 2, one day into Women’s History Month
, we taught 46 very special young women at St. Mary’s Academy
, an all-girls high school in Portland, OR. We spent the morning with the TIES program (Teaching, Integrating & Exploring Science), “a science mentoring program pairing St. Mary’s Academy students with fifth-grade girls from local parochial schools.”
We spoke about our work and the importance of arthropods. They held beetles and bashed misconceptions. Half of the girls raised their hands when we asked, "How many of you feel a bit skeeved by bugs?" The response was fairly evenly distributed between the older and younger girls. Since peer-teaching is a particular passion of ours, it was interesting to watch some of the fifth graders helping older mentors get over their fears of touching or holding the insects. By the end of the morning, the girls had claimed victory over their anxieties. Through tears, squeals, laughter, and encouragement the girls had pushed themselves to be brave.
For us though, the best part of the day was talking about careers and the concept of science as a daily activity. At one point, each pair was given a beetle larva. They were asked to make observations and use them to come up with questions. In other words, they were asked to do science. We explained that science is, in essence, organized curiosity. We revealed the shocking truth that the wrong answer or not knowing the answer is the basis of science and that it’s not a bad thing. Finally, we admitted that the “right” answer is always changing as scientists learn more and create more powerful tools to explore this world and beyond. More than half the group said they were interested in a career in science.
*AN ASIDE: I get irritated when I read articles that say we shouldn’t try to get more people into the sciences because there aren’t enough professor or post-doc jobs as it is. It’s a narrow, limiting, and dangerous argument. Not everyone is going to BE a scientist. Some will be writers and communicators, others teachers, and many will be parents of youngsters. We should work to make science accessible and concepts attainable so that we create a society that celebrates and expects scientific literacy.
This month people all over the country will be talking, writing, and speaking about great women in history who are an inspiration to both women and men. We will, too. Jess and I will also take a few moments to remember that we have the incredible privilege of being able to speak directly with young women who will make history in the future. They will inspire others in different ways—through various mediums, careers, and voices. We are so grateful for this chance to teach others about passion for biodiversity and the nature of science. We may never make history, but every week we teach young women who could.