Where can more than 130 sixth-grade girls learn about science and have fun at the same time? Chestnut Hill College is where, when they take part in the bi-annual PAGES (Philadelphia Area Girls Enjoying Science) mini-conference.
“Studies have shown that around middle school age, it becomes less cool for girls to be interested in science,” says Karen Wendling ’03, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry and the College’s point person for the PAGES events. “This program is really geared toward fixing that issue by bringing in the girls right at that stage where they might be starting to think science isn’t cool. Then we let them experience science for themselves – which really is cool and there are plenty of women who are good at math and good at science. It’s just a stereotype that women are not successful at these things.”
The basis for the PAGES mini-conferences came from former CHC chemistry department chair, Helen Burke, SSJ, who through a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), founded the program almost 20 years ago. In 1998, the late Grace Banks '72, Ph.D., professor emerita of chemistry and physics, took over for Burke alongside fellow CHC alum, Anne DeMasi '86, who through her own work as a chemist was able to get the American Chemical Society involved in the worthwhile endeavor. A year later, DeMasi passed the baton to Kathy Shaginaw, founder of the Women Chemists Committee in the Philadelphia section of the ACS. Through the foundation laid by the women before her, Shaginaw, who still runs the program to this day, was able to launch the first spring session in 2000.
Now, 15 years later, PAGES continues to see growth in resources and its ability to help young girls get involved in the sciences, in large part due to the support of the ACS and other organizations such as the Philadelphia Section of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) and the Northeastern Montgomery County and Makefield Area Branches of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). But at the heart of the program remains the same goals and values that have existed from day one, those being to increase girls' interest in science and mathematics, provide students with an opportunity to meet women working in non-traditional fields, and fostering awareness of varied career opportunities for women.
“CHC’s involvement with PAGES has been extremely beneficial and wonderful not just for our college but for what we have been able to do for these young girls in the local area,” says Wendling. “I’m very happy to be involved.”
The day’s format includes an age-appropriate keynote address given by a female scientist, lab sessions led by female scientists or local graduate students and information about lab safety precautions along with safety goggles that they wear at all times. Among the favorite experiments are extracting DNA from strawberries, creating a non-toxic slime polymer, and of course, making ice cream out of liquid nitrogen.
This year, the ice cream experiment was run by a team of female graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania. But before the girls got their ice cream, they had to solve a problem which involved different types of markers and figuring out which marker wrote a note through a various series of tests.
After that, the grad students brought out the liquid nitrogen and poured it over the pre-mixed ice cream ingredients in order to make the sweet treat. To top it all off, the students even provided sprinkles.
Another favorite experiment is performed in the rainbow density lab where the girls learn how to discover varying salt contents and densities in liquids in order to stack them as a rainbow in a test tube — an experiment that Janet Younathan, Ph.D., technical editor and scientist-II at Johnson & Johnson, has been doing with PAGES for 10 years.
“I love this experiment because it requires the girls to think like any scientist does, by thinking systematically and logically through the problem of finding the most dense and least dense solution as well as the ones in between,” she says. “It’s also collaborative as the girls work together to help each other, which of course is crucial in science.”
At the end of the day, the girls are given lunch and a goody bag filled with pamphlets, useful gear and even some take-home science experiments. They also have the opportunity to help design a large mural by drawing their favorite experiment on a banner.
Students from CHC’s chemistry club also work at the event, helping the visiting scientists with anything they may need.
“As much as we do this for the girls, there is definitely a secondary benefit to all of the volunteers, especially the CHC students, as it helps them not get so isolated in thinking about their degree and coursework and exams,” says Wendling. “It helps them look back at a time when they were that age, first getting interested in science, that’s led them to the point where they are now.”
— Marilee Gallagher ’14