Science is for girls at Horizons Unlimited Biotech Camp
By Emily Ford
Kayla VanBuren wanted to be a photographer when she grows up. But after a few days of Biotech Camp at Horizons Unlimited, the Southeast Middle School eighth-grader is having second thoughts.
“I might be changing my mind,” Kayla said. “It’s pretty cool to wear a lab coat.”
Kayla and 19 other rising eighth- and ninth-grade girls are spending this week immersed in science and biotechnology, fields that are traditionally dominated by males.
But this week, girls rule.
Anne Ellis, the science specialist at Horizons, loves to ask, “Who says girls can’t do science?”
It’s a rhetorical question, of course, and Ellis, who taught at North and Knox middle schools for 12 years, works hard to make girls feel comfortable and confident with science.
“At first, they were tentative and a little hesitant,” she said. “But their confidence is building.”
Horizons collaborated with the N.C. Research Campus to pursue funding for the Biotech Camp, which will host 20 middle school boys next month.
Thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Robertson Foundation and $6,000 from the N.C. Biotechnology Center, Horizons purchased high-quality equipment that students might find in a real laboratory, including mini-centrifuges and micropipetters.
“The school system could never afford to have something this high-quality,” Horizons director Lisa Wear said. “Because the equipment has been purchased, from now on we will be able to offer this camp at a greatly reduced cost.”
Students this year paid $50 for the week, including meals.
The tools are so advanced that Horizons will offer staff development programs to area high school biology teachers, Wear said.
This week, the girls have inserted DNA from a jellyfish into bacteria to make it glow and determined whether fish species are related by looking at their DNA profile, among other experiments.
“The goal is to engage students in a rigorous science program before high school so that they will choose a path in high school that will lead to a science career,” Wear said.
It appears to be working.
Jessica Kinney wants to study genetics and the brain.
“I want to know how people process thoughts,” the rising ninth-grader at Mallord Creek High School said.
Kaylyn Pogson, who will attend West Rowan High School this fall, likes neurology.
“The brain is so incredibly complex,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll ever completely understand it.”
The girls toured the Research Campus Wednesday, where many scientists are women.
“We have a lot of female role models here,” said Dr. Ashley Dunham, the community health project leader for Duke University’s medical research study based in Kannapolis. “It allows them to see that women can effectively function in a science environment where academia and industry work together.”
The Research Campus, which focuses on health and nutrition, includes eight universities and 17 private companies.
“There is a stereotype that science is a career that men go into,” Dunham said. “That is completely untrue.”
Girls need more encouragement to take science classes and pursue careers in scientific fields, Wear said.
“And sometimes, in ways that are different than we encourage boys,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with the self-confidence that girls need at this particular age.”
While science and math are still considered “nerdy,” that image is changing in middle schools, many of the girls said.
Would it prevent Jessica, the future geneticist, from pursuing a career in science?
“Never,” she said.