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Following An Online Dust-Up, Science Center And Others See A Conversation Starter

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

A recent story about the disparity in Boy and Girl Scouts course offerings at the Carnegie Science Center caught fire online. The outrage was made all the more contentious because the seemingly single course offered for Girl Scouts centered on creating beauty products.

The issue touched a nerve in Pittsburgh and beyond: A snapshot of a science center brochure highlighting offerings for scouts shows a number of courses for boys, and just a single one for girls. It turns out a closer look at the pamphlet reveals more extensive offerings for girls, and the pamphlet also fails to mention that all courses are open to both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Stakeholders in the controversy are putting a positive spin on the flap, calling it an opportunity and a conversation starter. 

“What we’re interested in is to kind of harness the passion of the conversation and to say, ‘We welcome that discussion about girls and STEM, because it’s something we’ve been a leader in for about 10 years now,’” said Linda Ortenzo, director of Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) programming at the center.

Ortenzo is quick to point out that the center provides an array of STEM programming for girls. She also noted that the Carnegie Science Center has had a difficult time getting Girl Scout troops to sign up for science courses and that the name of the singular Girl Scout course "Science with a Sparkle" was research-based and meant to draw Girl Scouts in.

"There’s a lot of very robust chemistry content in the program itself," Ortenzo said. "We allowed girls to pick a name and what they picked was that name among a list. It turns out it was very popular among their peers, and that was the one that girls wanted to participate in, and so it was really the hook.”

Sherri Ferris gets that the course was meant to hook girls. The South Hills resident is a mother of four, including three math and science-inclined girls. She learned about the incident via Facebook and said the brochure is out-of-date.

“Our wording needs to change," Ferris said. "How we present things to our children needs to change. How teachers present things to the children needs to change. How troop leaders present things to the children needs to change. They always assume that it’s science: boys are only going to like it; it’s sparkle: girls are only going to like it, but that’s not true anymore.”

Ferris said she thinks indignation over girls and STEM programming has been simmering for a while, and the brochure incident was a catalyst for some of that anger.

"I believe it's gender-based on one hand, and math and science gender-based on the other," she said. "So I think it was just both of those things mixed together, thrown into a pot, and boiled over."

The Girl Scouts of Western Pennsylvania is turning the outrage into opportunity.

“This conversation — my phone was ringing off the hook with people wanting to partner with us, that frankly we were maybe having a hard time getting a connection with before, " said Melissa Cooper, regional vice president with Girl Scouts of Western Pennsylvania. While her council does not affiliate with the Carnegie Science Center, Cooper said the organization does a lot to engage girls in STEM fields.

“When you’re talking about learning and connecting and discovering I think STEM is part of Girl Scouts, whether people sometimes recognize it or not,” she said.

But while Cooper said the Girl Scouts offer plenty of diverse programming, “from a female perspective, we could always do more.”

Doing more is key, according to Lisa Abel-Palmeri, director of learning innovation and technology at the Ellis School, an all girls school in Shadyside. At Ellis, STEM extracurriculars are highly popular. She said the school gets girls invested in STEM by putting it in a wider context.

“Being a scientist, it’s not about numbers or percentages, it’s about people,” said Abel-Palmieri. “And it’s about how the girls can change issues in the world, issues in their community. And that learning science affects their lives and changes other people’s lives."

She believes part of the reason the incident sparked so much anger was the seeming lack of options for girls, but also the title of the class.

“There’s been a lot of effort to engage girls in STEM by doing something like creating lab coats that have polka-dots, or creating products that appear to be girl friendly," Abel-Palmieri said. "Some may say that we shouldn’t have to have those interventions for girls and women to get an equal seat at the table.”

Abel-Palmieri said Ellis does not feminize its classes, instead they make sure that girls start learning science early. Teachers begin instruction in computer science and engineering in elementary school.

“Girls start to do coding and use robotics as young as age three in kindergarten where they get hands-on with modular robotics kits, they learn SCRATCH, so we are engaging them early and we’re engaging them often in these very technical areas, but what we’re doing is making it about context and story,” said Abel-Palmieri. “We’re connecting it to other disciplines. We’re connecting it to their lives.”

Science should be a part of girls’ lives — as much as any other discipline or activity, said Abel-Palmieri and others.

And the Science Center’s Linda Ortenzo said the next brochure will have more programming for Girl Scouts.