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Formula to get girls into science

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Updated: August 8, 2012 6:03AM

Sixteen-year-old Evergreen Park native K’Maja Bell offered an exclusive glimpse into a new e-book about the cosmos at the nation’s yearly gathering of the American Astronomical Society.

Bell has gained her expertise working for the past two years as the youngest-ever intern for astrophysicist Kim Coble, studying the cosmos at a level usually reserved for graduate students.

“It has opened my eyes to how big the universe really is, and how much is out there we don’t even know,” said Bell, a rising junior at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School and aspiring writer.

Coble volunteers to work with young women through Project Exploration, a non-profit founded 13 years ago by dinosaur explorers Paul Sereno and Gabrielle “Gabe” Lyon to give young people, and especially girls and children of color, the chance to work with scientists in the field.

Coble and Bell met through Project Exploration’s Sisters4Science program, where middle-school girls learn about science with women in the profession.

Said Coble, who started volunteering for the program 10 years ago: “I’ve had undergraduate and master’s degree students work with me, but that’s part of my job. K’Maja is special because she is my first high-school intern.”

Project Exploration this year also launched a year-round Brothers4Science program and is introducing students to forensics, engineering and environmental science.

In her astronomy internship, Bell has used a proxy online telescope based in Chile to capture images of the Medusa Nebula. After she learned how to operate the telescope remotely, she tested software aimed at making three-color images of the astronomical scenery.

“I took images inside the Gemini Constellation,” Bell said, noting that she chose it because of her interest in Greek mythology.

She also lent her perspective for homework and class exercise portions of the e-book she discussed at the astronomers’ gathering in Anchorage, Alaska, in June.

“It challenged me as a writer,” Bell said, noting that she had to learn to have entire sentences edited if even one detail was inaccurate.

But her input led to another edit. The authors wrote less wordy directions because students wouldn’t spend time reading them, Bell said.

The e-book, designed for college freshmen who aren’t majoring in science, will be titled “The Big Ideas in Cosmology.”

The Sisters4Science program reinforces research showing that girls and female college freshmen are highly influenced and encouraged by female teachers and peers.

Nilanjana Dasgupta, associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts known for her research on implicit bias and stereotyping, said her latest research revealed that eighth-grade girls in a physical-science class showed more positive attitudes and more closely identified with science when their teacher was female rather than male.

“We measure in milliseconds how quickly the students respond to ‘male’ versus ‘female’ when they see the word science,” Dasgupta said of her implicit association tests, which the students see as a game. “The idea is that you can measure people’s attitudes in two very different ways. Asking someone, ‘Do you think science is a boy’s thing?’ gets only at conscious stereotypes. You can also measure the implicit bias.” Even girls who read biographies accompanied by online photos of successful female engineers and scientists revealed greater positive feelings toward STEM careers, she said.

A new institute at Benedictine University aims to boost women’s confidence in much the same way. The Women’s Institute for Global Leadership, which launched June 28, 2011, offers women leaders professional training programs and a master’s of science degree in leadership.

The two-year, $27,000 program, which offers scholarships and a choice of online or online-and-classroom studies, is aimed at giving women a chance to delve into their own areas of interest and explore leadership in ways they may have shied away from.

“Women hear that getting an MBA is the way to go, but that might not teach you to be a leader or speak to you specifically,” said Tanesha D.H. Pittman, executive director and creator of the institute.

Pittman intends to expand the program globally and triple the size from the current graduating class of 33.

Dana R. Wright, the deputy chief of staff for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, said she gained more confidence in her skills and abilities, which she believes may have helped her become the first woman in the sheriff’s office to attend the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va. At the academy, she finished a 6.2-mile obstacle course, the Yellow Brick Road, made famous by Jodie Foster in the movie, “Silence of the Lambs.”

Wright, a Broadview native, also joined in her first fundraising event for the Girls’ Power Luncheon and serves on the associate board of the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, the only all-girls public high school in Chicago where she serves on the Associate Board.

“This program not only teaches about business and strategies. It emphasizes how important it is to give back to the community,” she said.

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