A girl raises her hand during a Great Explorations lab class held in the Whitman Hall of Science in 2015. PHOTO BY HALLEY McCORMICK '15
A girl raises her hand during a Great Explorations lab class held in the Whitman Hall of Science in 2015. PHOTO BY HALLEY McCORMICK '15

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Whitman will help inspire 450 middle school girls to close the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) this weekend when the campus takes them on Great Explorations in those fields. 

"The rewarding part of this work is when I get to see the girls' eyes light up with excitement," said Science Outreach Coordinator Heidi Chapin.   

The daylong Great Explorations (formerly known as Expanding Your Horizons) has been offered roughly every other year since the 1980s, according to longtime event co-chair Ruth Ladderud, administrative assistant in the Office of the Provost and Dean of Faculty. This year, organizers had to cap registration due to growing demand.  

Led by women faculty members as well as other local experts, students will conduct experiments such as modeling DNA and dissecting a sheep's heart and learn about wide-ranging topics including 3-D printing, dark matter and crossbreeding different plant species. Meagan Pollock, who earned a doctorate in engineering education and who directs professional development for the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity, delivers the keynote address.

"The girls see lots of interesting things being done by mostly female scientists," said Kate Jackson, associate professor of biology and an acclaimed herpetologist. "They get exposed to lots of careers they might set their sights on."

Planting these seeds proves urgent. Although women make up 47 percent of the overall workforce, they occupy only 24 percent of STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. STEM jobs tend to be among the more highly paid professions.  

"I think it's really important to get studentsespecially girlsinterested in science at a young age," said Lydia Garas, visiting assistant professor of biology and a first-time instructor for the program. Her workshop, Say Cheese!, teaches students how to make fresh cheese.

"Oftentimes girls like a subject, but are discouraged from pursuing it," Garas continued. "I had a lot of positive influences in my life that supported my interest in science, and I'd like to provide that same kind of support to girls."

Sponsored by the local chapter of the American Association of University Women, Great Explorations targets fifth through eighth-grade girls from across Walla Walla and surrounding areas. The Saturday event is made possible by a collaboration between Whitman, Walla Walla Community College, Walla Walla Public Schools and the YWCA of Walla Walla, with financial support from the Blue Mountain Community Foundation and other local trusts. Girls pay a nominal fee of $5; scholarships are available.  

"I want them to know that science is cool and that they can play, too," added Associate Professor of Astronomy and General Studies Andrea Dobson, whose workshop, Star Light, Star Bright, acquaints the young scholars with the night sky. "Because education can change the world for the better."