Newsletter #92     Expanding Your Horizons [AWM]

I sent a copy of this out night before last, but it seems to have dematerialized. Previous newsletters have spent three or four hours of R&R time in cyberspace, but twenty-four kind of stretches the imagination, so I shall zap it out anew and hope for the best.

This is another preview of an AWM education column, once again something that was originally destined for this newsletter, though in this case it hadn't yet gotten written. I think most of what I would have said is already there. I'll just add that the Expanding Your Horizons conferences described are also held around here at Seattle University and (I think) Seattle Central Community College, and twice over at Bellevue Community College, which does one for middle school girls as well as one for high school girls.

I apologize to those of you whose mail programs have delicate digestive systems. The article itself is copied in from Word, and I know that produces some bizarre effects.

There are some causes in life which are worthy and admirable in the abstract, but become vastly more compelling and interesting in the concrete. I have just experienced such a change in point of view, and am correspondingly devoting this column to the cause in question. As those of you who checked out the set of web-sites listed in the previous AWM Newsletter are aware, there is an ongoing series of conferences called "Expanding Your Horizons." They are sponsored and supported and generally kept afloat by the Math/Science Network. The motivation for the conferences is a bunch of facts with which most of us in AWM are all too familiar: "Only 19% of the science, engineering and technology work force is female"; "By eighth grade, twice as many boys as girls show an interest in science, engineering and mathematics careers"; "Nearly 75% of tomorrow's jobs will require use of computers but fewer than 33% of participants in computer courses and related activities are girls" (all quoted with due references in an Expanding Your Horizons hand-out.) This is not a problem that any single approach is going to solve, but letting adolescent girls see and hear and talk with women with highly enjoyable careers in math, science and technology is certainly one strong tactic. Expanding Your Horizons conferences have been doing just that since 1976, and have so far reached some 550,000 young women.

That is the admirable and impressive abstract situation. Since the cause is dear to my heart, the woman who called me last autumn from nearby Shoreline Community College was not required to exercise any arm-twisting skills at all to persuade me to sign on for an EYH conference this spring. I looked forward to it with vague pleasure, and duly put together a workshop on probability. I even dutifully took myself to the orientation dinner a week before the conference, and prepared to exert my best company manners to listen politely while 35 different women gave 90-second self-introductions, complete with a description of one role model. And that is when the switch from abstract to concrete kicked in. Those 90-second introductions were absolutely riveting. The career range was vast, from structural engineering to physical therapy (and I suddenly saw the similarity as each of the two discussed the joy of analyzing how a structure works) from computer consultant to veterinarian, from statistician to environmental attorney. Career paths were similarly diverse, from "I decided to go into nursing when I was three and I have now done every field of nursing except obstetrics" to "Well, this is my fourth career... so far." I was particularly taken with the graduate student who said cheerfully "I like science and I like climbing trees, so here I am in forestry." Of the role models one pair completely overshadowed the others for me -- the parents of a woman Ph.D. who themselves had been financially unable to go beyond high school, and who nonetheless raised their children in such a way that all five completed college and several went beyond.

Came the day of the conference, the Shoreline campus duly swarmed with hundreds of bright-eyed young women. Myself, I don't know how they managed to choose among the sessions -- 40 workshops and career panels, with titles like "The Great Penny Mystery", "Try these genes on for size" and "Robot Soccer" -- but choose they did. Thanks to some really classy organizing on the part of the Shoreline folks who were running the conference, they also found the sessions once they had made their choices. The "passing periods" displayed a cheerful and upbeat mass of humanity. Clearly a good day for the girls.

So what does an adult get out of taking part in an Expanding Your Horizons conference? The plenary speaker told a charming tale of a woman who kept receiving invitations to lift-offs at Cape Canaveral. Her mystification only cleared up after several years when there appeared on her doorstep a young woman who said that she had been influenced at an EYH conference to go into science and had wound up as an astronaut. The invitations were her form of thank you to the woman who had done the influencing.

I'm not holding my breath for that to happen to me -- I doubt if many of us toss pebbles that launch quite such an avalanche. But there was a young woman who stuck around after my session to test out a theory she had developed. And another who went out saying in tones of some astonishment,"That was actually kind of fun!" For them and their likes, I would happily repeat my efforts. And if enough of us produce enough of these miniscule scraps of influence on enough young girls, then among us we will have a not-at-all-miniscule impact on the future. --

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