Second annual “Expanding Your Horizons” conference inspires middle school girls to stay in science

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This upcoming Saturday, a hundred and fifty middle school girls and their parents will descend upon Swarthmore. Have we already started recruiting for the Class of ’15? Not quite. Swarthmore College will be holding an “Expanding Your Horizons” conference in order to encourage young women to continue their studies in math and science.

This is the second year the college has held the conference. Nicole Belanger ’08, conference coordinator, came up with the idea last year, when she received funding from academic departments to bring eighty girls from twenty-seven different schools to campus. “We unfortunately had to turn fifty girls away last year,” said Belanger, “so this year we applied for a Swarthmore Foundation Grant that would let us bring a hundred and fifty girls to campus.” Demand for such a conference is huge, however, and some girls will still have to be turned away.

Each girl will attend three different hands-on workshops led by Swarthmore professors and also local women in the fields of mathematics, science, engineering and economics. Associate Professor of Economics Amanda Bayer is “leading a workshop for the girls on how to use math to win games… we game theorists see games everywhere, from rounds of tic-tac-toe and soccer matches to interactions with parents, siblings or teachers.” Bayer and her daughter Annalise attended last year, and Bayer reported that because she was “thoroughly impressed by the presentations and inspired by the Swat students… I decided to make the time to participate as a workshop leader this year.”

Professor of Mathematics Deborah Bergstrand is running a workshop called “Connecting the Dots” where “students will explore a classic theorem in graph theory that has many applications, including in the design of computer chips. By doodling with dots and lines the girls will discover, with a little guidance, some patterns that lead to a fundamental property of certain kinds of drawings in the plane.” Other workshops will have girls doing experiments with pH paper in the chemistry lab, learning to write basic HTML, and even taking a closer look at genes.

After the hands-on workshops, girls will participate in small group discussions about gender issues in math and science. The girls will read a story about a child who grows up without a gender and is able to play both boys’ and girls’ games, they will take a quiz to see how many male and how many female scientists they can recognize, and they will be asked to picture people who do different careers in their heads to see what assumptions they make about gender. Guided by Swarthmore student facilitators, these exercises will hopefully spark discussion.

Parents will be participating in their own set of hands-on and discussion workshops. Their workshops will “focus more on the depressing reality of the gender gap in science,” says Belanger, and they will also be discussing ways that they can help their daughters succeed. New this year, somebody from the Swarthmore admissions office will be talking to the parents about how important it is that their daughters continue studying math and science in high school.

Professor Bergstrand is passionate about the importance of the conference, explaining that “Middle school is a time when many girls lose confidence in their abilities, especially in math and science. They also feel greater pressure to conform… as a result, even mathematically talented girls don’t always get support… we want to attract girls to our disciplines, to let them know that they can make important contributions and have a fun and rewarding career in the process.”

Bergstrand also has a personal interest in showing “that doing math can be social, creative, and fun, that it’s not just a solitary activity involving only number crunching… I’m a mom and have many interests outside math, so I hope to add to the students view of mathematicians as regular people, just as they might see themselves as adults.”

Will the conference become a Swarthmore tradition? “I hope so,” said Belanger, “as long as there’s a need for it, I really hope so.” Belanger was excited to announce that Patricia Kelly ’08 and Lauren Yoshizawa ’09 have already stepped up to organize the conference–with more girls and games, but hopefully less gender gap–for 2007.

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