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ASU workshop empowers young women to consider the sciences

high school girls writing in classroom
May 18, 2015

What’s your idea of a scientist?

For most of the 18 young women in an ASU high school workshop, it was a man in a lab coat – at least at the start of the workshop.

The professors running the workshop – a six-week program to help girls imagine themselves in a science profession – had the students draw a scientist at the start of the program to shake up their thinking and reveal subconscious stereotypes.

Directed by ASU English faculty members Jessica Early and Christina Saidy, the Girls Writing Science project hosts ethnically and linguistically diverse girls in grades 9-12 to examine the roles of women in the sciences, provide female role models and improve the students' science writing.

Each participant at the workshop, held at ASU Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, interviewed a female scientist from ASU or the community and wrote a story.

“There’s research that shows women stay away from the sciences because they don’t know any women in the sciences or have any role models,” said Saidy, who along with Eary is co-director of the Central Arizona Writing Project.

“Our goal is to encourage these young women to start thinking, ‘I can do this.’ ”

Ashley Zyriah Castro, a 15-year-old sophomore at ASU Prep, said she has already run into gender bias from classmates about her exploring a career in chemical engineering.

"They don't see that it's possible and are quick to judge, but I've never been hurt or discouraged by it," Castro said. "Science gives a deeper understanding and meaning about life in general. It's interesting to find there's more out there than just what we see."

For 14-year-old Ashley Verdin Sesmas, a freshman at ASU Prep, imagining herself in an important role is not a problem. She wants to become a neurologist.

“My uncle got into a car crash and had some problems after that, so I want to help him,” Sesmas said. “I want to figure out why a person reacts a certain way to this environment … I want to see the reactions.”

For sophomore Miranda Vargas, 16, the idea of being a cardiac surgeon is enticing. She says has her heart set on medical school in a few years.

“The first time I got interested in science was back in middle school when we dissected a baby shark,” Vargas said. “From that point on, I really wanted to cut things open and see what’s inside.”

The two-year, $60,000 project is funded by the National Writing Project/National Science Foundation-funded Intersections Project, through the ASU Department of English’s Central Writing Project. More workshops are planned at other local high schools.

Early said opening up the classroom doors and giving students access to people they normally wouldn’t have met can be a life-changing event.

“Research shows that success is often a case of who has access to sponsors and mentors,” Early said. “If you’re an honors or AP student, the world is your oyster. We want to go into classrooms and show that all students should have access to this curriculum and to important people.”

The curriculum included discussions on exploring science careers, a gallery walk to read excerpts from autobiographies and biographies of women in science, daily stories and TED Talks on women scientists, writing interview protocol with female scientists and writing emails to connect with women in science in a professional setting. The girls wrote profiles on female scientists to share with each other, with students who did not participate in the workshop, with their teachers and with their families.  

At the end of the workshop on May 20, all 18 students will participate in a celebration and receive program completion certificates. The professors also plan to have students again draw their idea of a scientist. Early and Saidy are hoping the exercise will have a much different outcome – lots of female faces.