By Rachel Hutchinson, Science Educator
When I look back at the landscape of my season as a science educator at Mount St. Helens Institute, the week of GeoGirls is one of the lofty high peaks that stands out. The week-long camp brought middle and high school cis-gendered, trans and non-binary youth from Oregon & Washington. With peers and mentors who shared their interest in science and geology, we - together - created a unique ecosystem for curiosity and friendship to flourish!
We started the week by descending into the depths and darkness of Ape Cave, plunging into an environment that was as new to the girls as they were to each other. Even from these dark beginnings, I saw the students supporting each others’ interests in geology as we each picked a spot to examine in the shadowy tunnel. The youth took a few moments to explore a section of the lava tube by the beam of their headlamp until each of them settled on a spot that interested them. Some were curious about the story behind a formation, some noticed differences in the cave walls, and some found beauty in the glimmer of the rock when taking the time to slow down and look closely.
We then took a tour of each others’ cave “special” spots, sharing what drew us to it and learning about the lava tube’s formation and history as we went. Hearing the excitement in their voices was enough to light up the dark tunnel! They encouraged and supported each other’s curiosities and were so eager and sharp when it came to making hypotheses about the geologic processes behind their lava tube feature.
Our adventure continued throughout the week with a climb up South Coldwater Ridge where we hiked to the remaining pieces of logging equipment that endured the power of the 1980 eruption. This wildflower-filled hike along Coldwater Lake to the debris fan of a past landslide was one of many enjoyable field explorations with the GeoGirls. Together we crawled through the slide alder to the site of the landslide that occurred just this past May, with a costumed dance party, and with much more!
Being away from home and the familiar has its challenges; however, the girls chose to fully embrace the experience of being in this dynamic environment, and supported each other in doing so with cheering words, an openness to one another and the help of Taylor Swift on all van rides to and from trailheads.
In addition to the encouraging community that blossomed out of the shared interest among youth, a larger community unfolded as women who excel in their careers as scientists and geologists came into the camp to lead the youth in research projects. Women remain under-represented in the STEM fields where careers are some of the fastest growing and highest paying.
In my own path studying science and ecology, I think about how many of my teachers and researchers whose work I admire look like me (not many), and how often in my career I showed up to work as the only or one of few women on a team (very often) or as the only non-binary person (almost always). It’s a challenge to have the feeling of “not-belonging” always present in the background. Here at GeoGirls, the youth were shown that they do belong in this field. The incredible women who have made geology their career welcomed them and showed them that there is a place for their passions and curiosities, even if they aren’t yet seeing gender representation at large.
The force of the intellect and interest in science in this group of youth was so strong, it gives me faith that the imbalance in representation will be on its way to balance before long, no doubt with Taylor Swift singing in the background.
(Photo Credits: Gina Roberti, Ari Nelson, Isabel Shinnick-Gordon & Makenna Colwell)