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Future Shock

Star Trek: Inspiring the Next Generation of Women in Science

University Business, Jun 2009

What does analyzing crime scene DNA, racing in a cardboard boat regatta, and practicing healthcare in Tanzania have in common? First off, these scientific learning moments are more fun and engaging than gazing endlessly at traditional textbooks, test tubes, and microscopes. Second and more significantly, women students are increasingly succeeding in emergent fields of science, and in classrooms, laboratories, careers, and boardrooms across the nation and overseas.

At women’s colleges like Cedar Crest (Pa.), Sweet Briar (Va.), Smith (Mass.), and Rutgers Douglas (N.J.), students are now taking double majors in emergent disciplines such as forensics, evidence-based health sciences, nanotechnology, biochemistry, environmental studies, and molecular biology. Not only are these women excelling in scientific experimentation, but as aspiring young scientists, they are becoming well prepared as effective communicators, thinkers and interdisciplinary role models for the next generation of women leaders who will shape the world of science and save the planet in the process.

Uniquely at Cedar Crest in Allentown, nearly a majority of the graduating class of 2008 selected science as their field of choice.

From launching the first undergraduate women’s genetic engineering program in the nation to offering forensic studies, Cedar Crest provides its students with state-of-the-art laboratories on campus and real world service learning opportunities from America to Africa. By way of illustrative example, nursing students traveling to Tanzania conduct gynecological exams, take blood pressure, carry out pre-eclampsia screenings, and vaccinate children against polio and other diseases.

Forensic Science Program Director Lawrence Quarino put it this way. “What’s interesting about our program is that not all who come and do well want to stay in forensic science. We have alumni getting their PhDs in molecular biology, physics, and chemistry. Forensic science can open a door to other sciences. Our students are actively engaged in campus labs and crime scene reconstruction research where the human element get driven home.”

Speaking from perspective, President Carmen Twillie Ambar notes, “The fields of scientific inquiry are better served when women are fully represented. Cedar Crest College has demonstrated that we can successfully prepare women to lead broadly in the liberal arts, but particularly in the sciences. With a focus on women’s leadership, Cedar Crest will continue to embrace fields like forensic science and genetic engineering where the college has already demonstrated its rigor... these science-based programs are useful examples of how colleges can offer the right set of academic opportunities and evidence-based experiences that drive individual student success.”

With a focus on social responsibility and civic commitment, Smith College in Northampton provides its students with a hands-on, multidisciplinary approach to science and engineering. One alumna of ‘06 notes, “Two things that stood out for me at Smith—were the emphasis on both environmental issues and communication skills.” Through writing term papers, working across disciplines, and presenting the practical application of abstract concepts, Smith graduates have taken their place as future leaders in the fields of science and technology.

At Sweet Briar College, undergraduate students work closely with women-engineering mentors, and help high school kids learn about the importance of engineering and science. Applying theory and practice, Sweet Briar students race derby cars shaped like stiletto heels, test boats made of cardboard and duct tape, and invent new kinds of assistive technology for disabled workers. Hank Yochum, professor and director of the engineering program, notes, “We try to advertise that you’ll actually get to do engineering here - not just from textbooks. A lot of the projects are designed around something that helps people. This can mean more motivation for students to design something for someone.”

At Rutgers Douglas Residential College, women students can live and learn surrounded by other students with a common scientific focus. The Rutgers Douglas Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) pathway allows students to participate in internships, have mentors, focus on research, and engage young women in the sciences. Living in a residence hall for women can provide an important learning experience to a student. As Assistant Dean Regina Riccioni points out, “Each cohort builds a community of support that reinforces their own personal and professional desires and they constantly receive feedback.”

The new frontier of science is now engaging the next generation of women scientists — through the invention and discovery of cool new devices that improve the quality of life across the campus and around the world. Indeed, pioneering institutions such as Cedar Crest, Sweet Briar, Smith, and Rutgers Douglas are preparing the forensic scientists, biologists, environmentalists, chemists, and physicists of tomorrow - in more exciting ways than ever before. Through networks of women mentors, and a hands-on approach to higher learning, these colleges are encouraging young scientific minds to blossom in the new millennium.

James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.