Taking It Outside, Doctoral Students Build Girls’ Science and Leadership Skills

Jacqueline Gerson and Emily Levy

Duke University doctoral students Jacqueline Gerson (Ecology) and Emily Levy (Biology) wanted to increase hands-on science opportunities for young women and other groups that are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math.

With fellow Duke students Emily Ury and Alice Carter, they created a free summer program called GALS (Girls on outdoor Adventure for Leadership & Science). High school students who identify as female or gender nonconforming, students of color, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are welcome to participate.

For the inaugural program in 2017, the founders created a science curriculum and taught eight young women about the scientific method, environmental science, and backpacking. While it was a success, they identified two areas that would strengthen the program: a standardized curriculum, and a humanities component to complement the environmental science focus.

To further this work, Gerson and Levy established a network to enrich the GALS program and received a Duke Support for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks (D-SIGN) grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for use in 2017-2018. Their faculty sponsors are Erika Weinthal, Nicolette Cagle, Naomi Kraut, and Megan Mullin.

; learning about evolution via natural selection during GALS 2017

“I can’t stress enough how beneficial the D-SIGN network has been to this program,” said Levy. “I am especially thankful for the time and effort of colleagues outside of the fields of biology and ecology who added a new level of thoughtfulness, intentionality, and depth to our curriculum. The connections we made through our D-SIGN network will continue to strengthen our program and help us accomplish the GALS mission.”

Here are excerpts from their year-end report.

The D-SIGN network helped us fill the two gaps of a standardized curriculum and a humanities component. We worked with a Duke Master of Arts in Teaching and Master of Environmental Management student, Katrina Herrera, to overhaul our curriculum. Our lessons are now matched to state and national educational standards, and they include more hands-on and place-based learning activities.

We held four D-SIGN network meetings with Duke graduate students and postdocs from the Sanford School of Public Policy, the Medical Physics Graduate Program, the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, the Economics Department, the University Program in Ecology, the Nicholas School of the Environment, and the Biology Department. Our intellectual breadth allowed us to tackle topics that the original GALS team (comprised of ecologists and biologists) didn’t have the expertise to do. Through these meetings, we created four new lessons and documents that will critically enhance the GALS curriculum.

a 2017 GALS participant studied snail velocity on different substrates for her independent research project

The D-SIGN-supported network created a lesson about Environmental Values and Economics, in which students will learn about different ways in which humans place value on the environment. In this lesson, students first reflect on their own valuation of different aspects of nature. Then, they will each represent stakeholders in a town hall debate about whether to build the Fontana Dam (which was built in the 1940s).

We also created a lesson plan about environmental policy. In this lesson, students will learn how to assess environmental issues, identify those who have power over those issues, and act to effect change in those systems. Students will create a ‘power map’ of a CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation, or large farm in which animals are raised in confinement] in North Carolina to identify the people and institutions who can sway the status quo. Students will then write letters to these entities, which will be mailed upon returning to Durham.

The third lesson we produced focuses on the causes of, consequences of, and solutions to environmental justice issues. Students will consider the relevance of environmental justice to their own lives, take on the persona of stakeholders in a North Carolina CAFO to discuss a current instance of environmental justice, and finally take time to reflect on how to fight for environmental justice in their own communities.

GALS instructors during the 2018 instructor training trip

During our last D-SIGN network meeting, we produced a “GALS Instructor Guide for Sensitive Science Topics.” This 8-page document provides instructors with tips for facilitating discussions about topics that may be uncomfortable for some students (e.g., evolution). It also describes the scientific background behind 10 different “sensitive” topics that students asked about last year (e.g., Weather vs. Climate, Extinction & Biodiversity, GMOs).

Funds have also been used to attend diversity trainings, purchase educational materials, and organize a backpacking training weekend for GALS instructors.

About D-SIGN

This internal funding mechanism from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies encourages graduate students to explore beyond disciplinary lines, both in research and coursework. The goal is to enable graduate students to build or extend their networks and to integrate collaborative, cross-school experiences into their programs, thereby increasing the number of individuals whose graduate training reflects Duke’s commitment to interdisciplinarity and knowledge in the service of society.

  • See who else received D-SIGN grants in 2017-2018.

Photos: Jacqueline Gerson and Emily Levy; learning about evolution via natural selection during GALS 2017; a 2017 GALS participant studied snail velocity on different substrates for her independent research project; GALS instructors during the 2018 instructor training trip