Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Untangling the Threads of a Complex Knot

When I was a postdoc at Duke University, I spent some time volunteering at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. I helped visitors smush strawberries and extract DNA for the grand opening of the Nature Research Center, a new wing of the museum. In the Micro World Investigate lab, I once spent about 10 minutes staring at pond water through a microscope with an intensely focused little boy. On the stage of the Daily Planet, I gave a talk on bacterial symbionts of insects called “Bugs in Bugs” (I also had the honor of testing the AV equipment in advance of E. O. Wilson’s visit later that month). I loved my time volunteering at the museum. It is a valuable asset to North Carolina and beyond, and, even though I’ve moved away, I still consider myself a strong supporter.

It was in this context that I was surprised to read a Tweet last Saturday pointing to an announcement for a boys only summer camp at the Museum called “Science of Ick”. The announcement began “BOYS – it’s time to get icky and this camp is only for you!”. Navigating the museum’s Programs and Events page revealed that the morning slot of the first week of summer camps offered two choices for K-1 kids: a boys only “Science of Ick” and a girls only “Damsels and Dragons".

The explicit gender segregation of the camps and the language used to advertise them sparked discussion on Twitter (for a partial recap, see SciCurious’s Storify here). It’s no secret that girls and women face gender bias in STEM education and careers (for example, zero girls took the AP Computer Science Test in Mississippi and Montana in 2013). Many women who are science professionals have personally experienced bias in their K-12 education, graduate training and careers. The idea that girls would be excluded from the “icky” camp and offered only the “fairy tale” camp prompted some to recall similar instances in their own past. The ensuing Twitter conversation offered a range of valuable and balanced perspectives, including that single-sex education has benefits for girls and young women and that drawing young girls into science camp with a fairy tale theme is a reasonable strategy for increasing girls’ exposure to STEM.