Opening their eyes to science

EarthWatch program gives girls a chance to delve into scientific world.


Ten high school–age girls from across Massachusetts got some hands-on experience, some of them paddling kayaks for the first time, during a visit to Felix Neck Friday, August 16.

The girls were part of EarthWatch Institute’s Girls in Science program, an initiative that provides rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors with a taste of science that the program hopes will whet their appetites for more.

“We got to not only experience kayaking — for some it was their first time being in a small craft — we got to talk about the birds and climate change, and how it’s affecting the ecosystem,” Anna Woodroof, program coordinator for EarthWatch, told The Times. “It was a guided walk and talk, and a guided kayak and talk.”

This year, the fourth for the program, EarthWatch kept the program local, teaming up with Sea Grant at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to provide girls in Massachusetts with experiences in all types of sciences, Woodroof said. Only girls from Massachusetts were selected, which included a couple from the Cape and a couple with seasonal ties to the Island.

The girls had to apply for the weeklong program, and needed a recommendation from a science teacher. They didn’t necessarily have to be all-in on studying science, but some interest that field experience might inspire was preferable, Woodroof said.

“The goal is to try and not only show there are all these types of careers with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and introducing young women to science careers, but that science looks different in different ways,” Woodroof said.

Grace Simpkins, the education specialist with Sea Grant, was pleased with the outcome. “I thought the program was fantastic. We had 10 fellows from across the state, and our goal was really to teach them how to express themselves, share their stories,” she said. 

The students worked on bioacoustics, a project led by WHOI research scientist Laela Sayigh. Sayigh said she was giving the girls work that college and graduate students typically perform. 

While they were on-Island, the girls went on a guided kayak tour with attached small hydrophones, a device that records underwater sounds. They were able to compare the peaceful sounds of Sengekontacket Pond with the ocean sounds of whales, dolphins, and boats they recorded while on a whale watch out of Plymouth.

“I thought it was a huge success. I didn’t know what to expect going into it,” Sayigh said. “I’d be thrilled to be part of it again. We learned from it ways we could improve — things that could make it more streamlined. We have lots of ideas about that.”

The girls also benefited throughout the week from interacting with women scientists at WHOI, as well as at other places in Woods Hole like the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

“They received topical examples of how science doesn’t mean just working in a lab,” Woodroof said. “Oh, it was wonderful. I was just so impressed with all of the connections that WHOI has … It really felt like a tight-knit community. Everyone works together. WHOI was one of the great partners, linking those members together. We were very lucky to have partnered with them.”

The girls even got advice from reporters and photographers, asking everyone about their journeys along the way to get an idea of the paths women take both in science and outside the field.

The girls “really did seem to enjoy it a lot,” Sayigh said. “You really got the sense that it was transformative — science as a possible path for their future.”

The girls stayed in Sea Grant accommodations for the week, and the program was paid for through fundraising done by EarthWatch and Sea Grant. Applications for next year’s program will go online in either late February or early March. “The selection committee is looking for girls who are interested in science, but maybe don’t know what they want to do, and this is a great way to expose them to various fields,” Woodroof said.

Watch for the applications at the EarthWatch website. EarthWatch is also always looking for people to speak to the girls about their experiences in science, as well as those who are interested in supporting the program financially, Woodroof said.

“Our goal is to keep this partnership going, vibrant and strong,” Simpkins said.