Alex Dunphy (frustrated): (mumbles stuff about math equation) Oh, this stuff is so hard!
Cute dude math tutor: Don't worry, you'll get it! There are lots of women scientists!
Alex Dunphy (alarmed): But aren't they all fat?
--Modern Family, 11/24/2010
Okay, let's play what if. What if the Science Cheerleaders are responsible for making just one girl stick with her science & math classes - isn't it all worthwhile then?
Let's say the Science Cheerleaders do keep one girl in advanced science or math classes, but make three other girls feel like they have to pornulate themselves in order to be 21st Century Fembot Compliant While Doing Science, and make five d00ds feel like it is perfectly okay to hang up soft porn pictures of sexay hawt babes in the lab and harass some colleague because hawt science women WANT to be appreciated for being sexay and smart! - is it still worth it?
At K-State we ran a science camp for middle school girls. One summer there was simultaneously a football camp and a cheerleader camp for kids who were just a little older than our science kids. Our camp was called GROW, for Girls Researching Our World. All these kids mingled in the cafeteria. At the end of lunch one day, one of the football camp boys approached a small group of our science camp girls and asked them if they were there for the cheerleader camp (because why else would they be there?) "NO!" shouted one of them, who was a bit ornery and feisty. "No way! We're here for GROW!" "Grow? What's that?" "GROW, as in grow up, get a good job, and make a lot of money!" I doubt that young girl would have been inspired to explore science by a group of science cheerleaders (which is not to say she might not have been excited, in another venue, to meet some professional cheerleaders.)
Girls who had been at our camps could also sign up, throughout the year, to go on excursions to various engineering/science-related facilities, where they would get to see how professional scientists and engineers put their training to use in the workplace right there in companies in their own home state. They met with women scientists and engineers in those companies, who hosted the tours, had lunch with them, and told them stories about their lives. The comments we got back on evaluation forms - we did evaluations for all these events, pre and post evaluations, and long term follow up to see what impact the program was having - showed something really interesting and consistent over the time. The girls LOVED meeting women in the place where they worked. They loved seeing the clothes that the women wore to work - in many cases they were astonished to see how NORMALLY the women scientists and engineers dressed, that they looked just like "normal people", that they got to wear jeans, that they looked so comfortable at work, they they got to use so many cool gadgets and play with computers at work. They LOVED hearing stories about how the women got interested in science. And they LOVED hearing stories about what the women did in their spare time - that they had pets, went to church, played sports, volunteered in their community, what hobbies they had, etc. In short, that they did things not unlike other people the girls knew, and not unlike things they themselves were interested in doing or aspired to doing. What kind of car do you drive? they wanted to know. How much money do you make? How many years did you have to go to school? Did you have to study a lot of math? What do you do for fun?
They got to ask all those questions of women they had come to know in the course of a day through talking with them and seeing them in their workplace - seeing them in charge, seeing them as active scientists and engineers explaining and demonstrating their work to them. The women were real people, and the girls could imagine themselves growing up to become just like them. This was the feedback we got, over and over - "I could be just like them. I could wear jeans and work for x company and have a dog and drive a nice car and have my own home and do science!" And some of these girls went on through the high school girls program and on to college.
Now that is a lot of hard work and it takes years. And you have to evaluate along the way and keep refining your programs and adding stuff and fixing stuff and you have to work with the local school districts and teachers - because you also have to work with the teachers and the guidance counselors on doing a better job for the girls, to keep them in the science and math classes, and to advise them properly in choosing colleges, and because you want to track course taking and compare with control groups who haven't been to your programs. And sometimes you think, hey, x is a great idea! And you do it, and your evaluation shows it was a total flop, the kids hated it, or it didn't even register on their consciousness, or it had the opposite impact of the one you wanted, or it sent a completely different message than what you thought you were sending.
One great activity we did was this: the Career/Life Game. The girls had to roll a dice at the start, and they got a certain amount of money based on the roll - because not everyone starts out the same. They had to make choices on how to spend their money, and time. Work in high school? use the money to buy a car, or go to college? Get married? Have kids? Got to grad school? There were a lot of complex choices they had to make, but it was all in the form of a game - they had to roam from station to station, and they could collect "diplomas" if they made it through various degrees. After it was over we discussed their choices and outcomes with them, and whether they were happy, and what they might have done differently, and how starting out with more or less money affects your life chances, and what you can do about it.
I guess we could have just brought in cheerleaders to jump around and yell "Gooooooo SCIENCE!" But those kids, mostly from low-income families, needed and deserved a helluva lot more than that. IMHO.
We did a program for the girls and their guardians. It was originally going to be girls and their mother but then we realized a lot of these girls might be raised by a grandmother or other family member and we didn't want to limit it or make them feel bad, so we just said guardian. We talked about what guardians could do to keep girls strong and interested in math and science, and gave them materials with resources in the community they could draw on. We talked to the girls about what THEY needed to do to keep themselves on track for careers in science, and why those careers were worthwhile for them. We said stick with math - almost anything you want to do will call on math skills. We would play a game where we'd invite any girl in the audience to name a career and then we'd say why math was important for it. We'd always get supermodel - then we'd explain how if you were a fabulous rich supermodel you didn't want someone else managing your money and cheating you - you needed to be smart and financially savvy and know what was going on, so you'd get rich and stay rich - and that meant math.
There is, indeed, no reason why a woman can't be both cute and smart. But that was hardly the issue facing the young girls I saw in Kansas. It was lack of knowledge, lack of access, teachers and guidance counselors who didn't know what was necessary for sci/eng careers and didn't think it was all that important anyway to steer young girls towards them, parents who were overwhelmed and didn't know about these careers or how to take the first step to get their kids on the college prep pathway let alone to a sci/eng career, young girls who were just dying for adults to invest some time and energy in caring for them and their bright minds and what they were capable of doing.
Science Cheerleaders is, at the very best, an outreach program for already-privileged girls who are already interested in science/engineering but who are afraid it will make them look like fat lesbians.