It was a slumber party like no other. The fifth- and sixth-grade girls gathered around to watch videos starringnot Britney Spearsbut a biological anthropologist, a parasitologist and a wildlife biologist. Later on, the girls dissected the roundworm Ascaris lumbricoides. Before the night was over, they were searching for parasites on flea-infested dogs. The whole experience, they concluded, was way cool.
In 1998, educators in Lincoln, Nebraska, launched a series of sleepovers for grade-school girls based on the "Wonderwise" learning series, award-winning educational kits designed to encourage girls to pursue careers in science. Created by the University of Nebraska State Museum with a grant from HHMI, each kit features the life of a woman scientist and includes a video, CD-ROM and activity guide (www.hhmi.org/wonderwise).
"Before the sleepover, I thought only a select few women made it all the way," says Hannah Weber, 15, who participated when she was 12 and 13. Watching the videos and meeting women scientistsincluding local science teacher Sara LeRoy-Toren, who led the worm dissectiondispelled that myth. "When I was younger, we learned about Louis Pasteur and Jonas Salk in school," she says. "The same names kept coming up, and very few were women."
The sleepovers helped reinforce Weber's interest in science. She is now a sophomore in the Lincoln Public Schools Science Focus Program, based at Folsom Children's Zoo and Botanical Gardens. She dreams of becoming a doctor or maybe a research scientist who discovers a cure for cancer.
Weber hopes that by the time she finishes medical and postgraduate training, women won't be confronted with all the obstacles that sidetracked her own mother, who aspired to be a scientist but finally opted for a more traditional female career as an arts administrator. For now, the teen is less concerned about how she'll juggle the competing demands of life as a woman scientist than about how to pay for her education. "I love science so much, I'll just work around all the obstacles," she says.
Her mother, Deb Weber, admires Hannah's passion and determination. "I support both my daughtersHannah and 12-year-old Emilyin their natural curiosity about the world," she says, "and I encourage their confidence in their analytic abilities."
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
June 2002, pages 20-25.
©2002 Howard Hughes Medical Institute