Mizzou program sparks girls' lasting scientific interest
Scouts Sloane (left) and Katie (far right) listen to student volunteer Jasmin Wright explain the M&M chromatography experiment, in which students separate the food dye mixtures used to color the candy coatings.
Sheryl Tucker knows by now that when she tells people she’s a chemistry professor, she’s going to get some funny looks. People tend to have a caricature of a chemistry professor in their minds, and she doesn’t necessarily match it.
Tucker’s work with the Magic of Chemistry program is designed to make sure future female scientists either don’t get those funny looks — or just don’t care. The program brings Junior Girl Scouts (fourth through sixth grade) to campus for a day of discovery and chemistry experimentation. Research by Tucker and colleague Deborah Hanuscin, published in this week’s Science magazine, shows that the program works.
“Our number one goal is to create a positive association with science,” Tucker says.
The program, now 10 years old, meets that goal. According to research results, 81 percent of participants are interested in studying science and scientific careers after the program. And more than 40 percent come back for a second or even third workshop. Tucker adds that the latter number is artificially low because not everyone who wants to come back gets to; spots in the popular workshops are assigned through a lottery system.
So what does it mean that a program that started as a one-shot deal with 35 girls now can’t keep up with demand? “Girls are interested in these kinds of projects,” Tucker says. “What they get in school is great, but there’s a thirst for more things to do.”
Sarah Stansfield seconds that sentiment. The freshman from Jefferson City works in Tucker’s lab and volunteers in the program, but she also experienced the Magic of Chemistry as a Junior Girl Scout eight years ago. “It was a lot more hands-on than the labs we did in school,” she says, “so it was more fun.” In fact, it was fun enough to bolster her natural interest in science and lead her down a path to study at Mizzou.
Now, Stansfield gets to see the proverbial light bulbs go off in girls just like her.
“I think it’s cool for them to see other girls in science,” she says. “They might not have seen it as a girlie profession. But you can see them getting excited about it in ways they weren’t before.”