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Girls in STEM: What 3 Professors Are Doing to Empower the Next Generation

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In a recently published paper, three DU professors examine the effects of STEM summer camps on girls’ relationship with science and their scientific self-efficacy.

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A young girl adjusts a large blue telescope in a classroom.

RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a transcript of this episode.

Show Notes

Women make up just 34% of the workforce in professional STEM fields. In college, too, women are underrepresented: about 21% of engineering majors are women and around 19% of computer and information science majors are women. 

So, the question is: Why does this happen? Are women just less interested in these fields? 

Jennifer Hoffman, Shannon Murphy and Robin Tinghitella, all faculty in the University of Denver’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, answer that question with a resounding “NO.” 

Together at DU, Shannon, Jennifer and Robin co-host science summer camps for middle-school girls. And they are not only providing opportunities for girls to become acquainted with STEM fields, they’re also studying the campers’ relationships to science.   

In this episode, Emma chats with the three female scientists about their experiences as women in STEM and why it’s so important to get girls interested in the sciences early in life. 

Jennifer Hoffman is a professor of physics and astronomy in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Denver. She holds the Womble Chair of Astronomy and directs DU's historic Chamberlin Observatory. Her research interests focus on the late stages of massive stellar evolution, in particular on the role of binary stars in shaping supernova explosions. Hoffman uses a combination of observational spectropolarimetry and 3-D computational modeling to explore these research questions. She sees her roles as an educator and mentor as a vital part of her scholarship. In all these arenas, Hoffman works to expand opportunities and remove barriers to participation in physics and astronomy for people from historically underrepresented groups. 

Robin Tinghitella is an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Denver. As a behavioral ecologist, she works to understand how rapidly changing environments alter animal communication, particularly interactions between males and females. Researchers in her animal behavior lab use both insect and fish model systems and are supported by the National Science Foundation, the Morris Animal Foundation, the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the Animal Behavior Society (amongst others).  

Shannon Murphy is a professor of biological sciences in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Denver. She studies the ecology and evolution of interactions between plants and insects. Murphy works side by side with students to investigate how these plant-insect interactions are affected by global change. She works closely with undergraduate and graduate students to both teach them about and study the ecology and evolution of interactions between plants and insects, and together they investigate how these interactions are affected by global change. 

More Information:

STEM Summer Camp for Girls Positively Affects Self-Efficacy" by E. Dale Broder, Kirsten J. Fetrow, Shannon M. Murphy, Jennifer L. Hoffman, Robin M. Tinghitella 

AAUW: The STEM Gap: Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics 

DU SciTech Summer Camp

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Emma Atkinson (00:05): 

You're listening to RadioEd, the University of Denver podcast. I’m your host, Emma Atkinson. 

I’m going to tell you a riddle.  

A father and son are in a terrible accident that leaves them both seriously injured. The boy is taken to the hospital and is about to go under the knife when the surgeon declares, “I can’t operate on this boy; he’s my son!” How is this possible? 

The doctor, as you may or may not have guessed, is the boy’s mother—a woman. The not-so-lighthearted riddle is intended to stump you; how could the boy’s father be the surgeon, when he was also injured in the accident? Surprise! The doctor isn’t a man at all. The story is—hypothetically—intended to get you thinking about gender roles and expectations.  

This riddle is now common enough that it doesn’t elicit confusion or shock, but the foundation of the joke still rings true: We don’t expect women to be in positions of power—particularly not in fields like science, technology, engineering and math, otherwise known as STEM.  

The American Association of University Women has research that backs up these assumptions. 

Women make up just 34% of the workforce in professional STEM fields. In college, too, women are underrepresented: about 21% of engineering majors are women and around 19% of computer and information science majors are women. 

University of Denver biologist and professor of biological sciences Shannon Murphy says her own experiences as a young female scientist align with what is considered the standard when it comes to STEM education: classrooms dominated by men. 

Shannon Murphy (01:40): 

I was often the only girl in a lot of my science classes. So I have a very distinct memory, actually of my honors chemistry class, my senior year of high school – there were only four girls in that class. And I grew up in Boulder, which is a very liberal, open-minded place. Why were there only four girls in a class of 35 students in that class? 

At the time it didn't seem weird to me because I was often the only girl or one of few girls in these classes. But looking back on it, that shouldn't have happened. And I never had an experience where I was doing science with other women except in my little lab table where in the chemistry class I was in, all four of us were at the same lab table. The boys didn't even really want to work with us, and I we probably didn't want to work with them either, but that was my only experience of experiencing science with other women. 

Emma Atkinson (02:34)  

Why does this happen? Are women just less interested in these fields? 

Shannon and her colleagues in the University of Denver’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics answer that question with a resounding “NO.” 

Jennifer Hoffman (02:46): 

In our fields, I think there still are pervasive ideas about why there are so few women, at least in my field – and very few people of color, and even fewer women of color – that a lot of people think well, they just must not be interested. And I think that what we're finding is that it's not about a lack of interest at all. It's more about a question of, ‘Am I gonna belong in this community?’ 

And so if we can take a small step that will help the people who are interested and capable and smart and motivated and, you know, create a community where they do belong, and where they see that they can belong, and see that they can be a scientist do the things that scientists do, that has a huge impact. 

Emma Atkinson (03:38):  

Small steps can have a huge impact. You just heard Jennifer Hoffman, an astronomer and professor of physics and astronomy at DU.  

Jennifer believes there’s no shortage of interest in STEM fields for girls, just a shortage of opportunities. 

Jennifer and Shannon’s colleague Robin Tinghitella is a biologist and associate professor of biological sciences. She says her interest in science was sparked by the opportunity to investigate questions that don’t yet have answers—she says she feels lucky that she was able to turn that curiosity into a career in STEM. 

Robin Tinghitella (04:09): 

I think it's an attraction to the unknown and to some independence in terms of shaping the directions that I would go with my career.  

So what I really love about what I do is that I get to see something cool, ask an interesting question about it, and they actually pay me to go answer that question in fun, exciting ways, and then share it with other people.  

Emma Atkinson (04:30): 

Together at the University of Denver, Shannon, Jennifer and Robin co-host science summer camps for middle-school girls. They are not only providing opportunities for girls to become acquainted with STEM fields, they are also studying the campers’ relationships to science.   

In a recently published paper, the trio, along with outside colleagues, examine the effects of these science summer camps on girls’ relationship with science and their scientific self-efficacy by asking the girls a series of questions before and after their camp experiences. 

Robin Tinghitella (05:00): 

When you're thinking about scientific self-efficacy, it's all about your identity, so do you see yourself as someone who is capable of acting as a scientist and doing all of those different steps of the scientific process? And they're really related topics, right? So a lot of the questions we asked, it was kind of difficult to categorize. Is that scientific self-efficacy? Or is that about your relationship with science? 

Shannon Murphy (05:25): 

And I think what was surprising in that paper was, a lot of people had told us that you shouldn't expect to see big effects after a one-week camp. But I think, what was really cool to see – that we were seeing these big effects on the girls after a single week. And some of these students come back year after year, and work with us in the future year as peer counselors. So we have this long-term relationship with some of these campers. So there's that component of it, which is more long term. But even this one-week camp is having a huge impact on their lives, and how they perceive themselves in the world of science. 

Emma Atkinson (06:06): 

In their research, the women found that scientific self-efficacy among the girls actually increased after a week at camp. And the camps sound really fun! Who wouldn’t want to spend a sunny day in Denver at a summer camp with your friends? 

The girls do much more than that, though.  

Robin Tinghitella (06:21): 

We try and give students exposure to a lot of different things. One of the themes throughout the camp is that we like to do inquiry-based activities where the students are really acting as scientists themselves. So there is a theme or a research project that kind of funnels its way through the camp and shows up almost every day. But outside of that kind of central research project, they might be building telescopes or programming Raspberry Pi computers, or learning how to produce circuits, or playing with animals. We often bring our study organisms into the room and let them do things with actual animals on campus. So, I think it's pretty diverse. We also try and give lots of breaks for outside time. So, you'll see students running around catching butterflies with nets and pinning their insects and playing games out in the grass to give them a little bit of a break. They might be talking with other scientists who we bring in. We often bring in women who do different interesting things that are at the university or university adjacent as examples of STEM careers that they might pursue. So there's a big diversity of activities that take place on a day-to-day basis. 

Emma Atkinson (07:36): 

Jennifer describes how they provide a window into various STEM careers through off-campus activities. 

Jennifer Hoffman (07:42): 

We usually have a field trip day where we go to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. We have colleagues there who take us kind of behind the scenes and show us some of the special collections. We go to a planetarium show, they have lunch. So that's a really fun outing that we've done every year.  

Emma Atkinson (08:00): 

Which of these activities do you think the girls enjoyed the most, if you had to pick one? 

Shannon Murphy (08:05): 

I think what's really cool about that it's different for every single camper. So I just figured the first time we did this, that the first time I gave them a break, they would all just go straight to the Raspberry Pi computers and start playing on their video games that they had coded or whatever. But what's really cool is the first time we give them a break, it almost divides out equally, where a quarter of them go to the Raspberry Pi computer, a quarter of them are running outdoors with their telescope to do a telescope scavenger hunt. A quarter are grabbing their insect kill jars and their insect nets and they're gonna go start collecting dragonflies from the pond to look at them. And then another quarter are working with these squishy circuits that we have, where they learn about electrical currents and how they move through lights, and they use playdough to create these really cool, fantastic creations that some of the more artistic students really get into. And there’s never a time where a student doesn’t gravitate towards one of those. There is no favorite, really, they seem to really enjoy all of the different activities. And they are so completely different that I think it’s exciting for them, as Jennifer said, to find that the thing that they liked is a STEM field.  

Jennifer Hoffman (09:17): 

One of my favorite things that we see happen every year, is that when we introduce them to the idea of collecting and identifying insects at the beginning, a lot of middle school girls, their first reaction was like, ‘Ahh, ew! I don't want to – I don't want to touch that!’ And so for many students, there’s a hurdle to overcome.  

But by the end of the week, they are running after moths  in the classroom with nets, and their parents are saying, ‘Oh, yeah, she's bringing in crickets from outside and showing us,’ so they really just do an about face on the insect question because they see that it's cool and fun and interesting. 

Emma Atkinson (09:55): 

I love that. Yeah. And that's almost one of those cultural examples that you gave, right? Girls are expected to be scared of bugs. Girls are supposed to say, ‘Ew, I don't want to touch that.’ And then you said by the end of the week, they're like, ‘Give me that bug.’  

Musical interlude 

Emma Atkinson (10:16): 

Gimme that bug! 

Now, these girls aren’t just doing amateur experiments and collecting scientific information for the fun of it. Some of these campers are actually co-authors on a recent scientific paper about how light pollution affects an invasive plant called cheatgrass.  

Shannon Murphy (10:32): 

One common interest that the three of us have is light pollution. So as ecologists and evolutionary biologists, Robin and I are interested in this because it's a huge global change driver that is affecting natural populations of animals and plants and species around the world. And it's increasing. And it's becoming very problematic for how animals are able to deal with orienting themselves, dispersing, mating, talking to each other. For fireflies, I'm thinking, ‘How do they flash, and how is that affected by lights?’ And you've probably heard the famous examples of sea turtles that orient towards land and go towards hotel lights instead of out to the ocean.  

But then also, this is clearly an important issue, too, for Jennifer as an astronomer, because we can no longer see the stars at night. In Denver, now, I feel like we're lucky if we can see four stars in the middle of the night. Whereas, you know, 50 years ago, that wasn't the case; people could see stars a lot better. 

Emma Atkinson (11:34): 

In the first year of the summer camp, Shannon was walking her dog around Denver in the evenings and noticed that there was a lot of this plant, cheatgrass, and it was growing mostly under the artificial light of streetlights. She’d been doing some lab research on the effects of artificial light on cheatgrass, but only in controlled greenhouse settings. 

Shannon Murphy (11:51): 

And I just anecdotally started noticing that there was a lot more of it, it seemed, under streetlights and not under streetlights. And I wondered if the research I was finding in the greenhouse was actually happening out in the real world. That is the great thing as a lab scientist – to find out that what you're doing in the lab is actually relevant. And so I talked to Robin and Jennifer, I said, I think this could be a really cool experiment for the campers, and they were totally on board. But that was as far as we got before we started the camp.  

So then what we did, as Robin was talking about with inquiry-based science, we had the campers come up with well, what should our questions be? And how would we ask these questions? And how would we do this ‘field work’ in alleys around Denver? And how would we measure these plants? And how do we record our data? 

Emma Atkinson (12:38): 

So the team spent some time at the beginning of the camp helping the girls to think about this problem before coming up with their scientific process. 

Shannon Murphy (12:45): 

And we went out in the alleys. We thought about, well, where do we measure under the streetlight, where do we measure not under the streetlight? And then we also realized, oh, hey, poles are a problem. So sometimes there's utility poles that don't have streetlights. But we started noticing that under the utility poles, the concrete around them was broken. And it seemed like maybe there were also just plants responding to utility poles, because it was breaking the concrete of the alley up. So we started thinking about that.  

And so with the campers, we designed this whole experiment where we were gonna go out and sample alleys around Denver, and they helped collect all the data. And then we actually found huge effects. It was really cool. So we found that the presence of a pole, a utility pole with or without a streetlight, does increase your chances of finding a plant. So plants are taking advantage of the cracks around poles and coming up. They’re weeds, usually. But then what we found was that the cheatgrass didn't actually increase in abundance in response to poles, and it only increased in response to the presence of a streetlight. And it was three times more common if there was a streetlight than not. So it really is light pollution that's driving that response in the plant. And it was so cool to find it in the field. 

Emma Atkinson (14:02): 

This was a real finding—a real, scientific finding! So, the three women kept in touch with the campers as they wrote the paper, which has nineteen co-authors. Eighteen of those authors are female, including the campers. And now, that paper has been published in scientific journals! These girls aren’t just campers—they're published scientific authors. And they haven’t even started high school. 

Musical interlude 

Emma Atkinson (14:29): 

One of the greatest by-products of the camps, the team says, is that the girls will take what they’ve learned and go on to teach others about it. They teach their siblings, they teach their friends. Robin says they see the campers really take ownership of what they’ve learned.  

Robin Tinghitella (14:42): 

That final step of science communication, the dissemination of your work to other people, it's actually really important for the development of self-efficacy in middle school students. And so part of the reason that we have that kind of capstone experience where they're making these posters and talking to their peers, and to their parents and their siblings is that we know, from previous research, that that's important for developing your own sense of your ability to do science, which is really important for persistence in STEM, particularly for women and individuals from minoritized backgrounds. 

Emma Atkinson (15:18): 

These women have been in STEM for a long time. I wanted to know: What affected them the most, personally, about watching these girls’ interest in and love for science grow?  

Robin Tinghitella (15:29): 

I think one of the most powerful things for me often happens on the very last day of camp and then goes on for some time after that. And that's during the week, we get to see the campers have these lightbulb moments and these exciting things where they catch a dragonfly for the first time and ask all these cool questions. And you can see them feeling that belonging in the classroom, but they don't often tell us how that changed things for them overtly. But their parents do, and their siblings do. And the connections that the girls maintain with our graduate students long term after that – I mean, we haven't run this camp for a year and there are campers who are still emailing back and forth with some of my graduate students.  

And that's so incredible to see those long-term relationships build and to see the girls really see themselves in the job, right? They saw themselves in that room and connected with people in such a way that they are now comfortable asking questions and coming back over and over and over. And I think just having parents tell us things like Shannon was talking about earlier. ‘When they came home yesterday, they were so excited. I've never seen them that way after a camp. Oh, and they went outside and set up their telescope and the whole neighborhood came over. And they taught them how to look through it and find things!’ That testimony from family members and friends, is so incredibly meaningful and kind of keeps us wanting to do it over and over, even though we are really exhausted at the end of the week. 

Emma Atkinson (17:11): 

A big thanks to our guests, University of Denver professors Jennifer Hoffman and Shannon Murphy and associate professor Robin Tinghitella. More information on their work can be found in our show notes.  

If you enjoyed this episode, I encourage you to subscribe to the podcast on Apple Music or Spotify—and if you really liked it, leave us a review and rate our work. It really helps us reach a larger audience—and grow the pod.  

This is the Season 4 finale of RadioEd. As always, I’m grateful for our managing editor, Joy Hamilton, our production assistant and music genius, Madeleine Lebovic, and James Swearingen, who arranged our theme. I also want to introduce next season’s co-host, Jordyn Reiland! 

Jordyn Reiland (17:50):  

Hello everyone, I'm Jordyn, and I'm thrilled to be joining RadioEd in the fall as a co-host alongside my talented colleague Emma. I’m a former journalist from the Chicagoland area with more than a decade of writing, editing and podcasting experience. I so look forward to helping share the stories of our talented faculty and the exciting research they’re doing. 

Emma Atkinson (18:10): 

We’ll see you again in the fall! I'm Emma Atkinson, and this is RadioEd.