Women challenge views about careers in science

MIT students urge Juneau girls to try scientific fields

Posted: Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Any science boys can do, girls can do better, or just as well - that's what two students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tried to get across last week to Southeast-area girls.

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Helen Chuang, 25, a graduate student in chemical engineering, and Katharine Chu, 19, a materials-science sophomore, toured Sitka, Juneau's middle schools, Juneau-Douglas High School and Yaakoosgé Daakahdi Alternative High School to discuss science and why girls should choose it as a profession.

On the national level, men still numerically dominate in the fields of math and science. But diversity is an important factor in scientific innovation, Chuang said.

"Engineering is about ideas, and if you have the same type of people, you get the same type of ideas."

"I remember when I was in high school, I was the only girl on the (science) team," Chu said. "I went through a lot of stuff the guys didn't go through. It was very hard for me."

Chu's hardship changed with outside encouragement.

"I did math and science programs in camp. Eventually I realized I really liked it (science), and I was really good at it."

In Juneau, girls tend to outperform boys academically, according to information provided by the school district, but there is no information available on what those girls choose to study in college.

Leanne Bell, 17, a senior at Yaakoosgé Daakahdi said the presentation got her thinking about career options.

"I might want to be an engineer rather than an orthodontist," she said.

Touring the schools, the duo talked about a lot of different scientific fields and how to pursue a science education in college. They also briefly discussed how lucrative science professions can be. About 240 students attended the presentations in Juneau.

In an exercise, groups were broken up in teams that had to build a structure out of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti. The girls were told to build it as tall as they could. The purpose of the activity was to show the collaborative nature of engineering and scientific discovery.

The women were brought to Southeast with grant money applied for by Christy Bergman, who works for the school district.

Kim Arnold, 16, an 11th-grader at Yaakoosgé Daakahdi Alternative High School said there is an unfair perception about men and women in science.

"Everybody thinks boys can do this stuff better than girls," she said.

• Will Morris can be reached at william.morris@juneauempire.com.

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