Girls and Science: Fully Capable

Women in ScienceThose involved in the nurture, training, and education of children sooner or later refer to the concept of a child’s potential: ‘Every child has great potential.’ Or, ‘Every child should be given opportunities to reach his or her full potential.’  It’s a noble concept and a worthwhile goal. But it has echoed out there for so long, it may have lost some resonance. Maybe it’s time to re-examine the concept by taking a step back. Potential is all about possibilities. What might be. But capability…capability is about what is. It’s where potential begins. Before anyone can dream of fulfilling her potential, she must believe in her own capability. And to believe in it, she’s got to recognize it and acknowledge that it exists. Or at least have someone else in her life point it out to her. Nowhere is this more critically important to young women than in the area of science.

DSC_0225It’s a tired but persistent myth that girls and science don’t mix. What’s worse, for years this stereotype was chalked up to the misconception that it had to do with brainpower. Boys’ and girls’ brains were hardwired differently and girls simply weren’t inclined towards science. We know now, of course, that’s just not true. Which means, it’s nurture (or the lack thereof) not nature that is the reason for the under-representation of women in the fields of science.  The NDP science department is out to correct that. They begin by recognizing a student’s natural capability – capability a student often doesn’t recognize in herself – and simply point it out to her. Then, along the way, the teachers engage the girls in scientific activity in the classroom, expose them to scientific experience outside the classroom, foster confidence in their scientific achievements, encourage them to consider a science major in college “without hesitation,” and to explore careers in science so that they will be able to “contribute to future achievements in scientific fields.” For those who discover their capability but are not interested in a career in science, the faculty, nevertheless, strives to engender in every student an “awareness that scientific knowledge is fully compatible with other career choices.”  There’s no pressure. Just opening eyes to capability, opportunity…and potential.

To that end, in 2006, the science department got together and developed a Women in  DSC_0234Science Summer Internship Program. Spear-headed by upper level biology teacher, Tom Peri, the program has been an enormous success. Since its inception, participation in the program – to which a student must apply – has more than doubled. Today, NDP girls are placed in a wide variety of science related internships throughout the area and beyond. Middle level girls receive placement as interns with veterinarians, primarily, while the upper level girls gain experience in an extensive range of scientific fields including medicine, healthcare, research and laboratory work, marine biology, engineering, forensic science, physiology, environmental science, solar energy, and more. It takes a tremendous amount of dedication and time beyond the classroom to organize the program, develop strong partnerships, and place each girl in an area where she has a keen interest. Last summer, NDP students participated in the highly selective and competitive Jump Start Program at the University of Maryland, an immersion course covering advanced scientific subjects in a very hands-on way. Another student, current senior, Anna Markovitz, attended the National Student Leadership Conference on Medicine at the Berkeley Medical School in California, where she participated in all the things a med student does. Another senior, DSC_0235Grace McKenna, lived on a catamaran in the Caribbean for three weeks, worked with marine biologists, became scuba certified, and conducted environmental service. Others worked at the National Aquarium, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Johns Hopkins, St. Joseph’s Medical Center, Eden Mill Nature Center, Whiting Turner Engineering and others. Many of the girls participated in SMIP- Summer Medical Internship Program – a program unique to NDP, designed by NDP faculty and open only to NDP girls. Through SMIP, NDP girls work in hospitals one-on-one with a doctor who they shadow closely for two weeks. This program allows the girls to get first hand experience into the medical profession, including being present during certain surgeries! As I spoke to Tom Peri, his enthusiasm for the program and for science was abundantly clear. He gave all the credit for the success of the program to his departmental colleagues…and to the NDP students.

“I knew that if we could get our foot in the door at some of these places, they would be incredibly impressed with our girls,” Tom explained, which, to me, speaks volumes about just about everybody. Tom added, “I know of no other school program like this. Anywhere. It’s really unique to Notre Dame.”

On Tuesday, October 15th, there will be a Symposium during which the girls who participated in the summer internships will share their experience with the audience and present their scientific findings. On that same night, some of the girls will be inducted into the National Science Honor Society, becoming, in the process, new role models in science for those NDP students coming up behind them. And that’s a good thing.

Tom Peri“My whole goal,” explained Tom, “Is to break down barriers. To show girls that this is not beyond you. You can do this. For sure, you can.”  As if to prove his point, Tom added, “See this tie?” pointing to a sharp  yellow silk number with red stars knotted around his neck.

Yellow tie“Uh, yes…”

“I gave a really hard biology test last week. I’m returning the test to the girls today. They know I wear this tie anytime at least one of them has scored 100 on their test…”

“So that means…”

“Yup!” Tom said proudly. “I love what I do. I can’t wait to come to school every day. I love that I’m making a difference. I can feel it!”

With that, he entered his classroom. I’m pretty sure I heard a cheer go up. Today, an NDP student receives 100 on a science test. Tomorrow? Maybe the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Who knows?  The potential is there.


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