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September 28, 2009

There Are No Limits in This "Universe Quest"

Universe Quest opens new worlds for young explorers

They moved from classroom to observatory to beach, learning about astronomy, video games and digital photography.

Twenty-one sixth- through tenth-grade girls from the San Francisco Bay area spent a week at "Universe Quest" Summer Academy, a camp promoting scientific exploration. Some of the girls have always been hooked on math and science, but for others, it's a brand new adventure.

"It's hands on, it's not textbook, and it's not a teacher lecturing you about something. It's more, you get to do what you want to do and experience it your own way," said one of the students, during a field trip to the Chabot Space and Science Center.

Confidence Building

"I think in elementary school from grades K-5, boys and girls are really interested in science, but I think something happens in the middle school," said Sharon Parker, co-founder of ASA Academy and Community Science Center in Oakland, Calif.

The classroom portion of the Universe Quest camp, July 13-17, 2009, took place at ASA Academy. Parker said the "all-girl" summer camp builds confidence.

"In the middle school, girls get a really different sense of themselves," continued Parker. "So, if they really like science or math, that really gets tilted. Because the boys come in and so, sometimes, they lose a lot of confidence. So programs like this allow the girls to just be with a group of girls to really ask questions."

Astrophysicist Carl Pennypacker from the University of California, Berkeley is principal investigator of Universe Quest. The long-time educator said he loves to see the many "aha" moments from these young participants. He also sees value in the all-girl environment.

"Boys are at a different developmental stage. Boys come jumping up there and take center stage, and don't leave much space for girls to blossom," explained Pennypacker. "We are creating a safe, fertile ground for them to discourse, to dialogue, to see the things that really matter to them. Eventually they will have to interact with boys, of course, but they will be coming from a position of strength and confidence at that point."

Taking time to explore

Universe Quest is a National Science Foundation- (NSF) funded program. It is one of more than 140 NSF projects supported by the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program. The program includes research studies and strategies for K-12 students and teachers. ITEST focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Another ITEST goal is to encourage careers in information technology.

The Girl Scouts of Northern California is also a partner in Universe Quest. Science is second nature to scouts--who knew? Way back in 1920, Girl Scouts could earn badges for electrician, naturalist and stargazer.

Jean Fahy is program director for the Girl Scouts of Northern California's "Girls Go Tech" initiative.

"We encourage them in science. But, deeper than that is the encouragement to explore a variety of different options and gain confidence in science and technology, engineering and math," said Fahy. "So that they can go out and do whatever they feel is important to them as a career, whether or not it's in science and tech or something else."

During one morning of camp, the girls took part in a Skype video conference with Dara Norman, an astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, Ariz. She explained how a career filled with the study of black holes and dark matter can be exotic, challenging and a great way to bring math and science to life.

"The most interesting thing to me about the science is that, every time you do a project or get involved in science, it always leads to more questions, so you are always chasing the ideas that you suddenly discovered you don't know," Norman told the girls.

Not just for future astronomers

Facilities like Chabot Space and Science Center and programs like Universe Quest can go beyond the often limited time and resources of classroom science teachers.

"If you really want students to learn, and to stretch their imagination about something, then you really need to take the time to have them spend more time exploring and developing their own questions," said Stan Fukunaga, education manager at Chabot. "That's the key. Because when you give them an already designed experiment, there aren't that many questions that could come out of that."

Many of these young women already have scientific plans for the future, from marine biologist to engineer to pediatrician.

Pennypacker thinks that's terrific. "Not that we want to produce a million astronomers, but if we can produce a million kids who love science, technology, engineering of the future, I think that would be a really good thing for the world," he said.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Marsha Walton, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.