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March 5, 2007

UCSC hosts conference to keep young girls interested in science

By Brittany Grayson

A weekend event at UCSC helped middle and high school girls from the Monterey Bay region prepare for their future by teaching them how to propel a robot with a lollipop.

Salinas High School student April Deutschle holds a hagfish, which eats whale flesh, during the conference.

While that may not sound like an essential skill, it's part of a popular program called "Expanding Your Horizons" designed to inspire girls' enthusiasm for math and science.

Now in its seventh year, the UCSC Expanding Your Horizons conference was sponsored by the Division of Physical and Biological Sciences' Academic Excellence (ACE) Program. Nancy Cox-Konopelski, director of the ACE Program, and a team of university and community volunteers organized the all-day event to encourage girls in grades eight through 12 to continue taking math and science classes.

Students attended two hands-on science workshops of their choice and heard talks from professional women in science. Jennifer Heldmann, a planetary scientist at NASA, began the day with a lecture titled "Planes, Trains, Cars and NASA Ames: An Exciting Journey of Math & Science." Persis Drell, a physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, ended the day with her talk, "What in the Universe Is Going on?"

The students enjoy the speakers, but the workshops always steal the show, according to Cox-Konopelski. "Every year we've had really inspiring women who do a great job delivering their message. But when all is said and done, the girls like the hands-on activities best," she said.

In one workshop, girls controlled electronic toys by licking lollipops with sensors embedded in them. They also had the opportunity to build robots and circuits, simulate asteroids smashing into planets, and synthesize banana oil. Leading the workshops were women in science and engineering from throughout the region, including UCSC graduate students and scientists from Stanford University, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Cox-Konopelski said she hoped the event counteracted the tendency for girls to drop science and math classes in high school.

"When they get to high school, girls start dropping out of science. It's not cool to be interested in math and science," said Cox-Konopelski. "We give girls a chance to do really cool and engaging things, and we do a little indoctrination along the way."

The program has been highly successful in previous years. Approximately 170 girls attended the event last year, and Cox-Konopelski said 200 attended this year.

"We get some students who aren't really interested in science--they want to be in business or even show business, but they enjoy the day. They learn something and have a good time," said Cox-Konopelski.

The EYH conference is part of a broader effort by the university to reach out to the Santa Cruz community. A related program known as GROW (Graduate and Seagate Researchers Offer Outreach Workshops) was implemented in October 2006. GROW allows UCSC graduate students to visit local classrooms and teach students about their research. Cox-Konopelski said these volunteers teach science and math through hands-on activities that teachers cannot offer because of a lack of time or resources.

"The idea is to make a connection between the campus and community and to keep students interested in science and math," Cox-Konopelski said.

For more information about these programs, visit the Expanding Your Horizons web site.

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