July 7, 2003
Has Brought Out the Scientist in the Girl
Editor's note: Reporters and photographers are welcome to visit SSEP classes and to join students and faculty at lunch and other events. To arrange a visit, contact Laurie Fenlason at firstname.lastname@example.org or (413) 585-2190.
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- Engineering, robotics, logic, genetics: it sounds like the course load of an ambitious graduate student.
In fact, it's the menu elected by more than 100 high school girls for their summer vacation.
Every July for the last 14 years, Smith College's Summer Science & Engineering Program (SSEP) has welcomed highly motivated high school girls from across the country and around the world who are passionate about science and engineering. Through intensive courses and small-group mentoring, the program aims to boost the girls' confidence in those fields by engaging them in hands-on, real-world problem-solving.
The classroom material may be advanced, but the philosophy of the program is simple: to encourage teenage girls with a bent for science to shine.
"Despite years of anti-bias work, girls interested in science remain a rarity," explains Gail Scordilis, director of educational outreach at Smith. "We provide an environment that is rich in role models, where girls get all of the attention and all of the opportunities. And in doing so, we help them see just how talented they really are."
Since the SSEP's inception in 1990, more than 800 girls have participated. In college, 67 percent have majored in science, engineering or technology.
The 2003 program began on June 29 and runs through July 26. This year's group of 110, the largest in the program's history, includes girls from Bulgaria, Germany, Japan and Yugoslavia, as well as 20 U.S. states. Many come from inner city schools, such as the Young Women's Leadership School in Harlem, Robert E. Lee High School in Houston and the High School of Science & Technology in Springfield, Mass. Reflecting Smith's longstanding commitment to diversity, more than 50 percent of the group is typically comprised of underrepresented minorities.
During their month at Smith, the girls elect two two-week research courses or one four-week course, totaling more than 120 hours of contact with Smith faculty. Their choices range from "Telescopes and Astronomical Imaging" to "The Chemistry of Plastic." Aspiring logicians can take "Math that will Help You Prosper," a course examining the applications of logical reasoning in law, economics, computer science and beyond. Students interested in issues of psychology and public health can elect "By Girls, For Girls," an opportunity to research and publish a comprehensive guide to adolescent girls' health.
Other offerings include "Truth in Advertising: A Chemical Analysis of the Products We Buy"; "Discovering the Science of Music and Movement"; "Folding and Unfolding: Mathematics and Engineering Via Origami"; "Your Genes, Your Chromosomes: A Laboratory in Human Genetics"; "Rare and Endangered Species and Their Special Habitats"; "Designing Intelligent Robots"; Women and Exercise: A Biochemical Investigation"; and "Experiment and Exploration: A Laboratory for Writers."
Outside of class, it's time for fun and recreation. Participants take tennis and dance lessons; work out in Smith's extensive athletics facilities; enjoy movie, game and crafts nights; and take field trips to local arts festivals, museums and theater performances.
For many, participating in SSEP represents their first significant time away from home and the first taste of life at a residential college.
"These students are on the verge of becoming women," Scordilis observes, "but they're still young girls. They're exhilarated to learn that they can handle living away from their families, in a dorm, and surprised that they can work so easily with girls from other cultures. The friendships they form are truly lifelong."
The SSEP is supported in part by grants to Smith from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the GE Fund. More information about the program is available at www.smith.edu/summerprograms/ssep.
Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation's foremost liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from every state and 55 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women's college in the country.
For more than 75 years, Smith has ranked in the top 3 percent of 519 colleges in the number of graduates who have gone on to earn doctoral degrees in science.
In 1999, Smith became the first women's college in the country to establish a program in engineering. The Picker Engineering Program is focused on developing broadly educated, well-rounded engineers capable of assuming leadership roles in corporations, non-profit organizations and technology-related fields. The first class of engineering majors will graduate in 2004, earning bachelor's degrees in engineering science.