When Judy Butler applied for her first job in the sciences in 1975, one of the requirements in the job description was to make coffee for all of the male scientists in the morning.
So on Saturday, when the retired Oregon State University faculty research assistant looked around to see nearly 140 middle-school girls from all over the Pacific Northwest participating in OSU's annual science workshop, known as "Discovering the Scientist Within," she couldn’t help but smile.
“It’s a wonderful world,” Butler said with a laugh. “I’ve enjoyed my scientific career, but it’s really heartwarming to see the progress that’s been made.”
Saturday’s program, which dates back to the 1970s, was designed to nurture girls’ interest in the sciences through hands-on STEM activities and partnerships with female scientists. During the workshop, the girls broke off into groups and spread out all over the OSU campus to participate in a dozen activities, including extracting DNA from a strawberry, turning a penny gold, riding hovercrafts and imploding soda cans. Joining them for the program were 30-plus activity presenters and just as many undergraduate women studying sciences at OSU.
“Coming into college and graduate school, I have been struck by the under-representation of both minorities and women in the sciences,” said Carolyn Poutasse, a graduate student in environmental and molecular toxicology. “It’s something I would like to change.”
Poutasse, who taught more than 20 middle school girls how to extract DNA from a strawberry, said she was excited that the workshop allowed the girls to dress in lab coats, rubber gloves and safety goggles and remove the DNA themselves. The girls got to take home souvenirs — small vials of the extracted samples.
“As a female graduate student trying to become a scientist, I really like being a mentor for budding young women who might be interested in science,” Poutasse said. “I want them to see scientists and say, 'That is somebody who I can be. That’s somebody who looks like me.'”
One of the main goals of "Discovering the Scientist Within" is to help dispel the idea that scientists must look a certain way, said Emily Nicholson, Precollege Programs Coordinator.
"There is this misconception that science is hard and that only men are scientists," Nicholson said. "Our goal is to change the way they think so when they think of a scientist, it’s not a man in a lab coat, but themselves."
According to the National Science Foundation, men outnumbered women in all STEM fields by about 10 to 1 in 1973. Butler, who first joined "Discovering the Scientist Within" as a 30-year-old graduate student in 1977, said attitudes toward women in scientific fields were very different back then.
“When we worked in the lab, all undergraduate women were always expected to wear dresses,” Butler, now 70, said. “And when I was an undergraduate, I had a couple of friends of mine who applied to medical school who were told by their professors that it wasn’t a wise use of their time because they were taking away opportunities for men to become doctors.”
Butler said she helped out with one of the first "Discovering the Scientist Within" workshops at OSU in 1977. She said she was amazed to see the program grow from roughly a dozen girls in the first few years to the 100-plus that have attended the last several years.
“Now they’re seeing that this is something they can do and their being welcomed and celebrated,” Butler said. “It’s just so exciting to see all of these generations, from middle school to high school to college, to see the opportunities that they have.”
Today, women constitute 50 percent of the workforce overall and 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project, an organization dedicated to encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers.
“When ('Discovering the Scientist Within') was first started, women were definitely underrepresented in all fields of science,” said Kari van Zee, OSU instructor in biochemistry and biophysics. “While we’ve made progress in some areas, like the biological sciences, life sciences and health professions, all of the sciences are open to all students and they need more opportunities to explore them.”
Saturday’s workshops focused specifically on those STEM career fields in which women are traditionally under-represented, including physics, chemistry, engineering and computer science. Today, men earn a majority of bachelor’s degrees in engineering (81 percent to 19 percent), computer sciences (82 percent to 18 percent) and physics (61 percent to 39 percent), according to the NGCP.
On Saturday, many of the girls involved said they were interested in pursuing careers in those fields. Dulce Rodriguez, 13, of Gresham, said she will never forget the moment she made a copper penny turn into silver and then gold.
"I'm going to keep the penny forever," Rodriguez said. "Seeing it change was so cool. I really like chemistry."
Dulce Guzman, 13, also of Gresham, said she also loved seeing the pennies change, but she's already decided she's going into physics.
"I think it's really fun to see how physics works," Guzman said. "I think it's really cool how you can experiment with how things move."
Zitlali Meza, 12, of Portland, said she was excited by Saturday's activities, but she's known for a long time that she wants to go into bio-engineering.
"I really like animals and the environment," she said. "I want to find ways to help the environment in the future."
While many girls said they knew what science they'd like to explore further, some, like Madison Tribe, 13, of Portland, said it was difficult to choose between so many options.
"I liked everything," Tribe said. "I think it's interesting to see how you can get so many different things by changing them in certain ways and taking things out or adding something to it."
Tribe said she also loved working with her mentors and could easily see herself becoming a scientist one day.
"I think the sciences are for all people. I think a scientist can be anyone," she said. "I found it really personally heartwarming to see all of these different types of people working together."
Parent Tammy Young, of Eugene, said she and her daughter, Morgan, first thought they wouldn't be able to attend the workshop Saturday as it fell on the same day of a middle school swim meet, also at OSU, but Morgan didn't qualify. Young said she was elated to see her daughter light up when they got to Corvallis.
"We were getting close and she said, 'You know, mom, I'm really glad I didn't qualify,'" Young said. "She did it last year and was really excited to do it again. I think that speaks volumes about the program they're offering, that she was that excited."
Young said her younger daughter, who is now in the fourth grade, is also excited about getting to be a part of the program in a few years.
"It's a phenomenal program and I'm really looking forward to my other daughter to do this as well as a part of the next generation," Young said. "They offer a diverse set of options, not just a sprinkling, but something where they're going into depth. Morgan is already planning on taking courses because of this program."
Discovering the Scientist Within is sponsored by the OSU Precollege Programs, OSU College of Science, OSU College of Agricultural Sciences, STEM Academy at OSU and Scientists and Teachers in Education Partnerships.
Those interested in learning more about the annual workshop and others offered as a part of Precollege Programs at OSU are asked to visit precollege.oregonstate.edu.