In one classroom, a group of schoolgirls inspected the brain of a dissected shark Saturday afternoon at Schreiner University, while in others, girls extracted DNA from strawberries, built rockets and robots and learned the basics of crime scene investigation.
The sixth, seventh and eighth grade girls were among 190 female students from across the Hill Country who signed up for the university's annual Expanding Your Horizons career conference, intended to get more girls interested in and ready for math and science-related careers. A $12 fee let each student see presentations by women in scientific professions and attend labs led by Schreiner University students. Girls learned the basics of crime scene investigation and diagnosing illnesses, examined local marine life, designed logos with Photoshop, built marble roller coasters and made silly putty, ice cream, beauty products and environmentally-friendly cleaners, among other activities.
Diana Comuzzie, director of the conference, said the day's activities will help girls choose high school classes and give them role models. Parents attended a section of the conference and learned how to better prepare their daughters for high school, college and careers in science.
Comuzzie, dean of the university's School of Science and Mathematics, said women continue to be underrepresented in math and science.
"Girls sometimes don't know that they can be smart, pretty, popular -- all those things together," Cormuzzie said. "Particularly smart -- it's hard to let people know that you're smart. It's great for these girls to be looking around the room and see there's 50 other girls that look just like them and that also like science, and they get to be in this environment where they all get really excited about science."
Kendall Elementary students and Boerne residents Janelle Gallego and Cassandra Muniz said their experiences at Schreiner helped solidify their goals. Together, the friends spent time learning about chemistry and computer graphic design. Muniz, who attended the forensics lab, said she wants to travel the world as an archeologist. Gallego, who attended the aquatic biology lab and caught a frog at the Guadalupe River, is considering a career as a marine biologist.
Asked whether having a scientist as a daughter would make him proud, Tom Gallego said Janelle makes him proud every day. "But it wouldn't hurt," he added with a laugh.
Attending the conference as a sixth- and seventh-grader inspired Jocelynn Machis to major in biology and premedical studies at Schreiner University. On Saturday, the college junior taught a group of girls about closed currents by helping them assemble "Bristlebots" made of toothbrush heads, batteries, pager motors, wires and tape.
"I very much believe that women are underrepresented (in math and science)," Machis said. I think that girls think ... they aren't smart enough to get through the course work, or they weren't exposed to it to see what massive amounts of different opportunities there are in these fields. The only way the trend can be reversed is to get girls interested in math and science, especially during the middle school years, and to support them, challenge them to continue their education and expand their minds. I also think that another big thing to reverse the trend is for these young girls to have role models, to see that these careers are possible, and to not be intimidated by what others say or think."
Comuzzie said having more female scientists will help increase humanity's knowledge and establish more of a balance between competitiveness and cooperation in the scientific community.
"Science is a way of knowing, asking questions, exploring," Comuzzie said. "Scientists ask questions from their own experience, so tackling problems and making discoveries benefits from diversity. If you have a diversity of people trying to solve different kinds of problems ... the more questions we can answer."
The conference was sponsored by the university and by the American Association of University Women.
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