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On Girl Scouts, glaciers, and great women

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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When most folks think about Girl Scouts, they think about cookies.  I love the cookies (peanut butter patties are my favorite) but thinking about Girl Scouts brings to my mind calculus, the glacial border region of Western New York, and the friendships I shared with a remarkable group of women who have all gone on to have successful careers in science and engineering fields.

The author in her Brownie uniform, circa 1984

In my Brownie uniform, circa 1984

I was a Girl Scout for twelve years.  By the time I graduated from high school, there were four girls in our troop:

  • Dr. Airani Sathananthan is an endocrinologist and an assistant professor at the Western University of Health Sciences.
  • Dr. Alice Suroviec is a chemist and an associate professor at Berry College.
  • Tina Steger is an industrial engineer at General Motors.
  • I started out in geology but shifted gears and am now the Science Librarian at SUNY Geneseo.

I can’t say that we would all be English teachers or marketing managers without scouting, but we had incredible role models, STEM related activities to broaden our minds and the opportunity to develop life skills that have served us well in scientific fields.

While there were many wonderful women who led our troop over the years, our most consistent leader, and the one who stuck with us until graduation, was Jean Harper. Mrs. H. was a lecturer in mathematics at the local university and tops my list of “women I admire.”  Her work in math and computer science ensured that we never had an opportunity to think “girls can’t do math” but she also made sure we were exposed to a wide variety of experiences.  She taught us how to count in binary when we were 9 and how to do folk dances from around the world in middle school.  (I remember the binary but was never fond of the folk dancing.  Sorry, Mrs. H.)  In a high school that lacked an AP math class, Mrs. H taught us calculus after school during our senior year. She is a remarkable story teller, and while her recent retirement is great news for her, I will miss the descriptive emails she sent of her latest classroom adventures.

In addition to the outstanding role models, my experiences in scouting led directly to my career choices. I spent most of my summers at Camp Timbercrest.  The camp occupies an amphitheater-shaped valley in Western New York and a lake was formed by damming one end of the valley. By hiking and boating and camping in that valley I got see glacial features like glacial erratics and lacustrine clay from pro-glacial lakes.  While I didn’t know what those things were as a teenager, those experiences had me asking “Why does this valley look the way it does?” and “Why is all of this clay here?”  My desire to learn more about geology was born and the camp eventually became the setting for my first research experiences examining the glacial border  region for my bachelor’s thesis.

Keyser Lake at Camp Timbercrest

Keyser Lake at Camp Timbercrest. Image copyright Jennifer Schlick and used with permission.

My good friend Dr. Alice Suroviec also has clear memories of scouting experiences that influenced her career decisions.  She remembers learning BASIC computer code during troop meetings and doing experiments to determine if salt water freezes faster than fresh water.  But she also had larger formative experiences during Girl Scout sponsored summer trips.  Dr. Suroviec had an opportunity to  learn about polymers by doing experiments at Akron University and to see how basic science is translated into patents by exploring the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Of course, the things we learned in Girl Scouts go beyond specific pieces of scientific knowledge and inspiration. Through guest speakers, field trips and research for badges, we had an opportunity to think beyond our small town. As Dr. Suroviec said recently,

“I think that being a Girl Scout let me dream big about what career options were out there and not just the typical careers (teacher, doctor, lawyer).”

Girl Scouts also provided us with a wide variety of opportunities to improve our leadership skills.  We took turns leading projects and setting the agenda for our weekly meetings.  We worked with younger scouts leadings craft activities and games.  And as I got older, Girl Scout camp provided me with a wide range of opportunities to lead scouts, fellow staff members and occasionally community members.

As I think back on my time in Girl Scouts, I am struck by the similarity of our weekly troop meetings to my work related meetings today.  We had to work collaboratively to set goals and accomplish tasks, and we had to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of our colleagues in order to get things done. Tents didn’t get pitched, meals remained uncooked, and workshops got out of control if we didn’t work together.

We learned how to communicate with each other. For some, Girl Scouts gave them the opportunity to speak up.  I sometimes struggled to let others talk, and I slowly  started to learn when to be quiet and let other folks talk. I also started to learn a bit of tact (it took a while, and some may argue that I have some work left to do).

So in honor (belatedly) of Girl Scout Week and the 101st anniversary of the founding of the Girl Scouts of the USA, I would like to say thank you to the Girl Scout organization and to Mrs. H., Alice, Airani and Tina in particular.  The experiences  I had and the relationships I formed had a profoundly positive influence on my life and my career in STEM.  But I’m still not fond of folk dancing.

 

Bonnie Swoger About the Author: Bonnie J. M. Swoger is a Science and Technology Librarian at a small public undergraduate institution in upstate New York, SUNY Geneseo. She teaches students about the science literature, helps faculty and students with library research questions and leads library assessment efforts. She has a BS in Geology from St. Lawrence University, an MS in Geology from Kent State University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo. She would love to have some free time in which to indulge in hobbies. She blogs at the Undergraduate Science Librarian. Follow on Twitter @bonnieswoger.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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