Teacher inspires girls to study sci­ence

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - FRONT PAGE - ASH­LEY MARTIN

Katie Der­mody, Devyn Dunn and Allysa Doull were only miss­ing lab coats.

Seated in Carla Cooper’s busy sci­ence class­room at Lums­den High School, they ex­plained their lat­est work in bi­ol­ogy 30, vials of fruit flies on the ta­ble be­fore them.

Like the lab tech­ni­cians in the blockbuster movie Juras­sic World, their task in their fi­nal weeks of school was to ge­net­i­cally mod­ify a species — in this case, cre­at­ing fruit flies with white eyes, in a species that usu­ally has red eyes.

“We’re try­ing to … make that re­ces­sive trait come out and hop­ing they won’t die in the mix of it,” Der­mody said with a laugh.

Ge­net­ics is part of the bi­ol­ogy 30 cur­ricu­lum, but Cooper took it to a new level af­ter see­ing Juras­sic World.

“They make this In­domi­nus Rex with all these lit­tle pieces of genes from other an­i­mals, and I say, ‘We are go­ing to be Juras­sic World lab techs and you’re go­ing to make a Su­per Fly,’” Cooper ex­plained.

“She’s def­i­nitely got some crazy ideas, but it’s lots of fun and it kind of makes ge­net­ics a lot eas­ier to un­der­stand, be­cause it’s a pretty big unit,” said Der­mody, who, hav­ing just fin­ished Grade 11, is four years into her plan of be­com­ing a med­i­cal doctor.

“Thanks to Ms. Cooper, things should be a lit­tle bit eas­ier with cross­ing and look­ing at species,” agreed Doull, who wants to be­come a vet­eri­nary tech­ni­cian, work­ing with live­stock. “It’s pretty ex­cit­ing.”

Der­mody and Doull are pre­pared to join the ranks of women who make up the ma­jor­ity of young grad­u­ates work­ing in health pro­fes­sions.

Ac­cord­ing to the 2016 Cana­dian cen­sus, 64 per cent of grad­u­ates aged 25 to 34 who had med­i­cal de­grees were women; 85 per cent of young grad­u­ates work­ing in health di­ag­nos­tic and treat­ment were women.

How­ever, men were much more likely to study en­gi­neer­ing and com­puter sciences. Fewer than five per cent of women in univer­sity ob­tained a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in these fields, com­pared with more than 25 per cent of men in univer­sity.

It’s per­haps for this rea­son that there re­mains a stereo­type that women and girls aren’t in­ter­ested in STEM — sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math — or that they’re bad at these sub­jects.

“I have a lot of girls that come in and say, ‘I just don’t get sci­ence,’” said Cooper. “Do you not re­ally get sci­ence, or have you been led to be­lieve that boys are bet­ter at math and sci­ence than girls, and girls are bet­ter at English? So it’s try­ing to build that con­fi­dence.”

She be­lieves the stereo­type will be “de­mol­ished” as so­ci­ety con­tin­ues to evolve.

Mar­garet Kuzyk, a civil en­gi­neer for more than three decades, agreed.

“There’s al­ways been men and women both that are good at both, but our cul­ture is chang­ing so that more women are in the work­force, and there is the op­por­tu­nity now to cap­i­tal­ize on your strengths,” said Kuzyk, who lives in Saska­toon. “It used to be that Dad went out to work and he did all the busi­ness stuff, and Mom stayed home and cooked for the kids — gen­er­al­iz­ing, of course. But we’re in a dif­fer­ent world now, and so women have the op­por­tu­nity to fol­low their strengths.

“I think it was just a bad stereo­type that, it’s go­ing — slowly, but it’s go­ing.”

In Doull’s view, it’s go­ing too slowly. She rolled her eyes at the men­tion of the pre­vail­ing stereo­type that, as a young woman, she should have no in­ter­est or skill in sci­ence.

She heard as much from a few young men dur­ing an open house at Lake­land Col­lege in Vermilion, Alta., where Doull will study vet­eri­nary tech­nol­ogy.

“‘Oh my God, the girls are never go­ing to want to touch this (spec­i­men) be­cause it’s so gross,’” she re­called them say­ing.

“Half the time we’re go­ing to be out in barns learn­ing, be­cause we learn on sheep, and the guys are like, ‘Oh, the girls are go­ing to have their hair up and their makeup all done and they’re go­ing to get all dirty,’” she added.

“No, we’re ac­tu­ally there to learn, we’re ac­tu­ally there to get in the mud, we’re ac­tu­ally there to get dirty. We’re not go­ing to stand there and watch you guys do it, ‘Oh my God, I’m go­ing to smudge my makeup.’”

Der­mody has been teased for study­ing so hard, be­ing called “the goody-good or the teacher’s pet.”

Kuzyk said she never felt dis­ad­van­taged by her gen­der, in a ca­reer that be­gan in the Univer­sity of Saskatchewan Col­lege of En­gi­neer­ing in the early 1980s.

How­ever, she was one of a small mi­nor­ity.

“There (were) 10 (women) out of 200 or so that grad­u­ated,” said Kuzyk, adding that her fe­male class­mates were brave.

“Be­cause en­gi­neer­ing has typ­i­cally been seen as a man’s world, and to be some­body dif­fer­ent in the larger group, it’s their world and you’re break­ing into it, it takes a lit­tle bit of brav­ery.”

But, Kuzyk said, in the “pro­fes­sional” and “col­le­gial” field, “once you get work­ing on the work, the stereo­types can re­ally eas­ily dis­ap­pear. Women don’t need to be afraid of do­ing the work, be­cause they’ll be ac­cepted.”

Kuzyk worked across Saskatchewan as a civil en­gi­neer, in­clud­ing in Saska­toon as a chief build­ing of­fi­cer for the fed­eral corrections sys­tem. She over­saw con­struc­tion projects at every prison and pa­role fa­cil­ity on the Prairies from 2004 to 2008. In 1997, Kuzyk was the first woman elected pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Pro­fes­sional En­gi­neers and Geo­sci­en­tists of Saskatchewan (APEGS). She never felt it was a mile­stone, but said “it was time for a fe­male to be a leader for our pro­fes­sion in the prov­ince,” and the peo­ple who elected her rec­og­nized that.

I have a lot of girls that come in and say, ‘I just don’t get sci­ence.’ Do you not re­ally get sci­ence, or have you been led to be­lieve that boys are bet­ter at math and sci­ence than girls, and girls are bet­ter at English?

To­day, APEGS sup­ports En­gi­neers Canada’s 30 by 30 ini­tia­tive, to raise the per­cent­age of newly li­censed en­gi­neers who are women to 30 per cent by 2030.

The na­tional av­er­age (and Saskatchewan’s statis­tic) has stuck at 17 per cent for the past three years.

In Saskatchewan, there was a 1.6-per-cent in­crease between 2014 and 2016.

Kuzyk be­lieves the low num­ber of women in en­gi­neer­ing might be due to a mis­con­cep­tion about the work.

“I think there’s a lot of women that want to make this a bet­ter world for ev­ery­body, they ’re more nur­tur­ing and con­cerned about the peo­ple — I’m gen­er­al­iz­ing — but they don’t see that they can do that in en­gi­neer­ing,” said Kuzyk.

“En­gi­neer­ing is a place where you can help peo­ple, but you help peo­ple in a broad sense, you help the com­mu­nity,” as in build­ing wa­ter and sewer sys­tems, for ex­am­ple.

Com­mu­nity health was the fi­nal project’s theme in Cooper’s en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence class.

Kait­lyn Har­ri­son and her class­mates spent their fi­nal weeks of the se­mes­ter on a case study ex­plor­ing the fic­tional town of Lu­men, where there are three hog fa­cil­i­ties and a poul­try plant.

The stu­dents’ mis­sion was to de­ter­mine why the res­i­dents were get­ting sick.

The stu­dents tested ground­wa­ter from nearby lakes, rivers and creeks to as­sess the wa­ter’s pH level. They stud­ied vine­gar’s im­pact on var­i­ous ma­te­ri­als, to sim­u­late acid rain. They con­sid­ered the in­flu­ence of pes­ti­cides and fer­til­iz­ers on soil.

“I like do­ing the labs. It’s just nice to do hands-on learn­ing,” said Har­ri­son, who plans to study agri­cul­ture in univer­sity.

“I like learn­ing about the en­vi­ron­ment and mak­ing it bet­ter.”

While Har­ri­son has al­ways been in­ter­ested in math and sci­ence — “solv­ing prob­lems and do­ing ex­per­i­ments” — she said Cooper mo­ti­vates her to do well.

Like­wise, a teacher mo­ti­vated Cooper to do well, back in a Grade 12 bi­ol­ogy class.

At Cen­tral Col­le­giate in Moose Jaw, Cooper vividly re­mem­bers her teacher Al­lan Hill blow­ing up a frog ’s lungs with a straw.

“I was like, ‘That’s so cool!’ “He’s the rea­son why I’m a teacher. So when­ever I feel like we’re not do­ing enough, I just keep that in my mind, ‘OK, we need to do things again.’”

Cooper’s whole teach­ing method is about en­cour­ag­ing her stu­dents to think crit­i­cally, “not just, ‘OK, we’re in this class­room, we’re learn­ing X, Y and Z, and then I’m go­ing to cram it, write it for the fi­nal and for­get it.’”

Cooper said she was al­ways in­ter­ested in sci­ence grow­ing up, but had a hard time un­der­stand­ing it.

“I took all my maths over twice. I never failed, but a 50 wasn’t good enough. The only sci­ence I didn’t take over twice was bio,” said Cooper.

“I spent a se­mes­ter up­grad­ing af­ter I grad­u­ated, so I get the strug­gle, be­cause it can be a very dif­fi­cult sub­ject.

“I want to make it so that the stu­dent who is the most con­fused in the room feels like I can re­late to them.”

She also themes each course, to make it more in­ter­est­ing.

“I think that’s how I get the kids,” said Cooper, who was hon­oured in May with a Prime Min­is­ter’s Award for Teach­ing Ex­cel­lence in STEM.

In en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence, stu­dents are in­ter­na­tional trav­ellers, learn­ing about agri­cul­ture and fight­ing world hunger.

When Cooper taught health sci­ence, her theme was Grey’s Anatomy. Her stu­dents were put into res­i­dence groups, wore lan­yards and called each other “doctor.” As a fi­nal project, they had to ex­plain why a pa­tient lived or died.

In wildlife man­age­ment, a lo­cally de­vel­oped course, the stu­dents are di­rectly in­volved in de­ter­min­ing what they learn.

“I think if stu­dents are not act­ing am­bi­tious, I haven’t tapped into their in­ter­ests yet, so that’s what I’m try­ing to get at,” Cooper said.

Mau­reen Bourke has a sim­i­lar phi­los­o­phy, as the co-or­di­na­tor of the U of S Sci-Fi day camps.

“If you start with the ex­pec­ta­tion that girls are go­ing to be in­ter­ested in sci­ence, they’re go­ing to fol­low through and be in­ter­ested in sci­ence,” Bourke said.

For 16 of the camp’s 29 years, the univer­sity has of­fered a Girl Power com­po­nent to the sum­mer camp, ac­tiv­i­ties ex­clu­sive to girls and fa­cil­i­tated mostly by women.

“What we’ve iden­ti­fied is to en­cour­age girls to go into STEM fields, they need to have a safe place to ex­plore that,” said Bourke.

“If they can study in an all-girl en­vi­ron­ment with fe­male in­struc­tors, that en­cour­ages more girls to go into STEM fields.”

To that end, the Girl Power camp — as well as the Dis­cover STEM con­fer­ence that oc­curs each May — takes boys out of the equa­tion.

“You get away from that male/ fe­male dy­namic,” said Bourke. “If a girl is ret­i­cent about step­ping for­ward, they’re more likely to do that, we have found, in an all-fe­male space. They can take on those lead­er­ship roles.”

In these sce­nar­ios, most of the in­struc­tors are women, which pro­vides a fur­ther ad­van­tage to the girls par­tic­i­pat­ing: It can show the girls that they could also work in sci­en­tific fields.

“We be­lieve that’s one of the bar­ri­ers that’s out there. If you’re not ex­posed to the idea that this is a pos­si­ble ca­reer path for you, you’re not likely to choose it,” said Bourke.

She has per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence in this. Be­fore a ca­reer as a lawyer, Bourke was on a sci­en­tific path.

But, “in the early ’80s, there were not a lot of women in com­put­ing sci­ence, and so I wasn’t en­cour­aged to con­tinue and there wasn’t the recog­ni­tion of the need to have” women in the pro­gram, said Bourke.

For more than 30 years, Saskatchewan Polytech­nic has sought to en­cour­age women in trades and tech­nol­ogy.

At cam­puses in Regina, Saska­toon, Prince Al­bert and Moose Jaw, there are work­shops and cour­ses to pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for women to try out trades. All are taught by women work­ing in trades and tech­nol­ogy, which pro­vide a “safe and sup­port­ive work en­vi­ron­ment” for women.

“Trades is seen as a man’s pro­fes­sion, so it’s chal­leng­ing for women to iden­tify be­ing in a trades ca­reer, es­pe­cially when they don’t see many role mod­els,” said Jes­sica Bald­win, the pro­vin­cial fa­cil­i­ta­tor of Women in Trades and Tech­nol­ogy (WITT).

“So that’s what’s crit­i­cal for our pro­gram­ming, is that we have those fe­male role mod­els to iden­tify a suc­cess­ful woman who is work­ing in trades or tech­nol­ogy and it’s kind of ‘if you can see it, you can be it’ type of at­ti­tude.”

WITT of­fers an ex­plo­ration course for girls and women aged 15 and up, which are led by fe­male trades pro­fes­sion­als, to learn skills in auto body, build­ing sys­tems, car­pen­try, elec­tri­cal, ma­chin­ing, civil en­gi­neer­ing tech­nol­ogy, wa­ter re­sources, min­ing en­gi­neer­ing and other ar­eas.

There’s a men­tor­ship pro­gram for stu­dents to ac­cess through­out their post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion, and af­ter grad­u­a­tion.

Sask Polytech­nic also of­fers day camps for girls, like the two run­ning this week in Regina.

Mind Over Metal lets girls aged 12 to 15 learn to weld. At Girls Ex­plor­ing Trades and Tech­nol­ogy, girls in that age range get to use tools and work on projects through­out the week.

At the Sci-Fi camps in Saska­toon, the girls’ ac­tiv­i­ties range from do­ing “su­per cool chem­istry stuff ” with a fe­male lab in­struc­tor, to con­struc­tion chal­lenges led by fe­male en­gi­neer­ing stu­dents.

“That way, they see women do­ing su­per in­ter­est­ing things and go, ‘Hey, I could do that as well,’” said Bourke.

“For a lot of women, they haven’t been ex­posed to a lot of trades or tech­nol­ogy skills in their his­tory, and I think pro­vid­ing op­por­tu­nity for them to have ac­cess to in­struc­tors and to the tools, it maybe takes the in­tim­i­da­tion fac­tor out of the class­room,” Bald­win agreed.

“Pro­vid­ing ac­cess to op­por­tu­ni­ties is re­ally crit­i­cal to in­spire women to think about dif­fer­ent ca­reers.”

For Der­mody, a men­tor in­spired her to pur­sue medicine — namely, her 21-year-old sis­ter Kara, who is study­ing phys­i­ol­ogy and phar­ma­col­ogy in Saska­toon.

“I guess just watch­ing my sis­ter go through it all, hav­ing some­one older than you, a role model al­most, just helped me a lot,” she said.

I like do­ing the labs. It’s just nice to do hands-on learn­ing. I like learn­ing about the en­vi­ron­ment and mak­ing it bet­ter. KAIT­LYN HAR­RI­SON, above, who plans to study agri­cul­ture in univer­sity


Lums­den High School stu­dents Devyn Dunn, left, Katie Der­mody and Allysa Doull did an ex­per­i­ment in ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion in­spired by the re­cent movie Juras­sic World.

Lums­den High School teacher Carla Cooper, win­ner of the Prime Min­is­ter’s Award for Teach­ing Ex­cel­lent in STEM in May, en­cour­ages her stu­dents to pur­sue their in­ter­est in sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math.


Ale­cia MacDougall, left, Brandi Hell­man, Paige Sali-Dzuba and Ta­tiana Bel­hue­meur race cars they built as part of a class taught by Lums­den High School’s Carla Cooper.

Stu­dent Kait­lyn Har­ri­son said her teacher, Carla Cooper, mo­ti­vates her to pur­sue her in­ter­ests with hands-on ex­per­i­ments.

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