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Girls find science is in their genes

Festival aims to expand their horizons in traditionally male-dominated fields

By Sam Miller
The Orange County Register

November 21, 2004

IRVINE ­ Hannah Frazier learned why her thumb, more than any of her friends' thumbs, juts back like a hitchhiker's.

Her friend Julia Orr learned why she has so many freckles, and Paige Losey figured out what's up with that chin dimple she has.

It's called genetics, and it's science, and that doesn't scare off these girls.

Hannah, Julia and Paige were among 900 girls, and a few dozen boys, who attended the Sally Ride Science Festival on Saturday at UC Irvine. It was the first time the festival has been held in Orange County.

Girls in fifth through eighth grades came with Girl Scout troops, school field trips and, in at least one school's case, as an alternative to detention to meet the first American woman in space.

Ride, now 53, was at Stanford University when she answered a newspaper ad looking for astronauts. She beat out 8,000 other applicants, making separate missions in 1983 and 1984.

Now, she's on a new mission: to get girls interested in science and mathematics.

According to the 2000 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress - administered by the U.S. Department of Education and commonly referred to as "the nation's report card" - fourth-grade boys and girls in California performed almost identically on science tests. But by eighth grade, boys were outscoring girls, whose scores as a group dropped.

"There are lots and lots and lots of opportunities out there for you in science and engineering," Ride told the kids at UCI's Bren Center. "I was lucky to see the ad in the Stanford newspaper, but I was prepared to take advantage."

The festival is now in its third year, with about 10 events nationwide each year. Guys are welcome, but they appeared to be outnumbered by at least 9-to-1 Saturday - think science fair meets Lilith Fair.

"For teenage girls, the dynamic is different (without boys)," said Linda Barker, a teacher at Top of the World Elementary School in Laguna Beach. "It's that old story: Girls don't want to look smarter than boys, 'cause they want to date them."

Participants explored street exhibits, in which pharmaceutical companies, women's science groups and societies for the advancement of all manner of scientific disciplines showed how, for instance, a double helix is constructed.

At one, kids got to see sunspots through a telescope. At another, they mixed water, paste and the compound borax to make a putty. With the goo clinging to their fingers, some of the girls started complaining.

"Look," said Julia, who is a fifth-grader at Calvary Christian School in Tustin. "It's called science. It's what we're here for!"

After Ride showed slides of photos taken from 300 miles above the Earth, the kids split into small groups to study. Hannah, Julia and Paige went to Barker's presentation on molecular changes - disguised as a lesson on making ice cream. Midway through, Barker asked if anybody knew what polyethylene is.

When nobody responded, she told them, "You're with girls here. You don't have to worry about getting the wrong answers."

A bunch of hands went up, and somebody answered, correctly, that polyethylene is a plastic.

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