Evergreen Chemistry Faculty Inspires Middle School Girls to Pursue Careers in Science

May 8, 2019
2018 science carnival 44

Did you know polar bears are invisible?

That’s what Rebecca Sunderman, a chemistry faculty member at The Evergreen State College, showed a group of budding scientists with infrared cameras at this year’s Expanding Your Horizons symposium.

The annual conference is designed for girls and non-gender conforming middle schoolers interested in  STEM. It’s one of the ways Sunderman works with the Thurston County community to involve underrepresented groups in scientific fields that tend to be male-dominated.

“Women are still not represented at the full levels they should be based on society population—especially in the physical sciences,” she said. And according to Sunderman, while the gender gap in the sciences ever-so-slowly trends toward closing, the numbers for some fields are still hard to look at.

The National Science Foundation reported that women made up only 28% of individuals in science and engineering occupations in 2015, and 15% of the total engineering workforce. They also composed just 28% of physical scientists (physicists, chemists, astronomers, and related occupations), and 26% of computer and mathematical scientists. The Harvard Business Review also reported in 2013 that more diversity in the workplace has a positive impact on productivity and innovation by fostering a culture where “outside the box” ideas have a better chance of being heard.

It’s why Sunderman likes to spark scientific inspiration for girls with workshops like the one she gave at the conference. With infrared cameras, Sunderman showed the kids how polar bears are nearly undetectable in the infrared spectrum because their fur structure prevents the heat waves produced by their bodies from escaping, insulating them against the bitter cold of their environment. She hopes that by giving them hands-on experiences like this, they will think about pursuing careers in STEM fields.

“I especially enjoy seeing the excitement in middle schoolers,” she said. “That is a key time when women tend to change their minds. Lots of them will say up until middle school that they want to go into science or math, and then something happens in middle school and they change their minds. And I like to encourage them to not change their minds.”

She believes there are systemic reasons for why women don’t tend to stay in STEM fields. “If you’re always the outsider, that can get tiring day after day after day. And so I think people decide whether they want to put up this extra fight and use this extra energy every day or find another profession.”

As a way to build confidence and keep scientific interest a priority for all her students, Sunderman brings her Evergreen students to local schools to judge science fairs and give presentations. “It’s a mutual confidence builder for my students as well as students at the schools—because there are lots of women in college who still aren’t quite sure if they’re going to stay in the sciences.”

Having previously taught at Western Oregon University and West Virginia Wesleyan University, she said she is proud to have taught at Evergreen since 2003, where currently all five chemistry faculty are women—a rarity in higher education, in her opinion. She said Evergreen’s interdisciplinary model gives her the chance to more accurately reflect the interconnectedness of the world in the classroom.

“Because they’re used to being exposed to everything all the time, I think they appreciate the breadth of the world far more so today than even two generations ago. And social justice is a part of everything now. And for them that’s just life,” Sunderman said of her students. “They like to see that modeled. And Evergreen can do that so well.”

She invites families to bring their kids of any gender to Evergreen’s annual science carnival, the largest event of its kind in the state, to experience just how fun science can be. The carnival will be held Friday, May 31 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visit the science carnival website to learn more.

(Photo caption: STEM middle school students at the Evergreen Science Carnival working with Sunderman and Evergreen students.)