Skip to main content

Fifty years of expanding girls’ horizons in science, math

November 3, 2009 By Jill Sakai

Julie Grove vividly remembers the day she discovered the field that would become her career.

As a high-school student in the mid 1980s, she spent a day at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as part of Expanding Your Horizons (EYH), a daylong conference designed to expose young women to careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

While touring a chemical engineering lab on campus, she was wowed by the students at work on a multistory distillation column and decided she wanted to become one of them.

Video: Expanding Your Horizons

Before attending the program, she says, “I don’t think I had any idea what [chemical engineering] was. I picked it because it had chemistry in the name… [but] in that one day session, somehow, something just made sense to me.”

She went on to graduate from UW–Madison in 1991 with a chemical engineering degree and has worked ever since as an engineer for 3M in St. Paul.

Grove is just one of thousands of Wisconsin women who have been touched by the EYH program during its 50-year history at UW–Madison. Scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 7, this year’s conference will bring together a mix of 400 middle-school girls from across south-central Wisconsin with different backgrounds and life experiences. Some may travel from smaller rural school districts with few female role models in technical careers, while others may hail from Madison and have mothers who are university professors.

The students attend two or three career sessions that usually involve hands-on activities, tours of labs and other workplaces, and lots of time for questions and personal interactions with professional women. Though based at UW–Madison, EYH also involves Madison Area Technical College, Edgewood College, the Madison Metropolitan School District, the Girl Scouts of Wisconsin-Badgerland Council, and numerous local companies and firms.

The girls can sign up to try everything from creating new flavors of pudding with food scientists from Kraft to learning how ecologists use radio tags to track wild animals.

The main goal is to “introduce them to careers that they probably haven’t thought about” — or even heard of, in some cases, says Heather Daniels, an administrative program specialist in the Graduate School who has helped organize EYH for the past 10 years. “We want to help the girls realize that women in science are normal women like their moms and their friends’ moms.”

At the local office of Strand Associates Inc., an engineering firm, girls work in small groups to design and build a bridge. Each group receives an aerial map of a river, two foam abutments, a $1 million budget (in the form of 100 Grand candy bars) and an assortment of building materials for sale — lasagna noodles, toothpicks, clay, drinking straws, string. They also get a set of real-world constraints — wetlands to avoid, utilities to move and height requirements so boats can pass underneath.

“We really think about what we have to do in our everyday projects, different factors we have to consider. It’s not as easy as just throwing a bridge down. You have to think about where you’re putting it and who it will affect,” says Stephanie Thomsen, a municipal engineer at Strand.

Afterward, they test the bridges with weights. “They’re so excited when their bridge works,” Thomsen says. “We’ve actually had to make it a little more difficult over the years because it was getting too easy.”

The UW–Madison program started in 1959 as a special project by the local chapter of Graduate Women in Science. In its earliest years, the program matched high-school girls with female scientists on campus for semester-long internships.

Over time, the format changed to a single day of activities highlighting a variety of careers in science and engineering. Now part of a nationwide Expanding Your Horizons network, the UW–Madison program focuses on sixth- to eighth-graders, targeting girls at a stage when research shows future expectations are already taking root.

“Kids decide really early on what a girl can do and what a boy can do,” Daniels says.

The founders were already very forward-thinking to be in science at a university in the 1950s, Daniels points out, so perhaps it’s no surprise they thought it important to introduce other young women to options in science. Back then, many girls had probably never even considered the possibility of pursuing a career in science.

With today’s girls more likely to recognize science as an option — but perhaps be unsure what it means or how they would fit in — the emphasis of the program is now more about exposing the participants to the many applications of science and engineering and what different types of careers are actually like.

The EYH program offers a level of access and exposure that many students may not get until college or even beyond, Grove says. “Tying in the book smarts, the stuff you learn sitting at your desk at high school in your chemistry class, to what a real chemist does in a lab… The whole notion of getting kids exposed to more real-life stuff — there’s no substitute for that.”

Interestingly, one thing hasn’t changed over time. Even in their “tween” years, girls expect to raise families someday and are already concerned about being able to balance a professional career with family life.

At the conference, participants are asked to rank what’s important to them in choosing a career. Every year, the ability to have a family and career ranks in the top three. Even though the girls aren’t seriously contemplating families yet at their age, Daniels says, “it’s very important to them that they can.”

The girls also get to meet a variety of role models that can help them see that “they can be who they are, and science still fits in there,” Daniels says.

“It’s nice to have a place where girls can be together and not be intimidated about learning about science and math, and they’re learning it from other women peers,” says Thomsen, who participated in the program herself as a seventh-grader and again in college as a group leader. “Women bring a different perspective to science and engineering.”

At EYH, Grove agrees, “You didn’t feel intimidated. It was a safe place. And once you remove that barrier, I think it made it a better kind of day where you’ve removed any fear or intimidation and you can do what you want to do — learn, listen and figure out what you want to be when you grow up.”