Published Oct. 10, 2012

Participating Middle Schools

French Middle School, Topeka | Jackson Heights | McLouth Middle School | Perry-Lecompton Middle School| Royal Valley/Holton | Seaman Middle School, Topeka | Shawnee Heights Middle School | Southwest Middle School, Lawrence | West Junior High, Lawrence

Women in Science Day leads girls by example

The skull of a now extinct species of bear, which lived during the Ice AgeRight now, 12-year-old Laryn Wilson wants to be a forensic investigator or a doctor. The sixth-annual Women in Science Day, hosted by Washburn University, hopes to keep her interest alive in spite of the well-documented statistical slide away from science, technology, math and science of junior high-aged girls.  

“I’ve always been interested in science,” Laryn said. “You have to figure out what happens.”  

The girl from Topeka was one of 239 7th-graders from nine middle schools in Topeka, Lawrence, Holton and other communities who came to campus Tuesday to listen to professional female scientists and participate in hands-on laboratory activities.    

During an afternoon session on plants and animals in the Ice Age, Laryn and her two group mates hypothesized that larger animals and those with only one primary food source were most like to be extinct after the dramatic climate change.  

Lead by a post-doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, the girls analyzed data, measured the skulls of species both now extinct and currently thriving and calculated the average weight of now extinct verses modern carnivorous animals.  

“The bigger the animal was, the more likely it was to go extinct,” Laryn explained, as her team presented its findings on a poster in a mini conference.  

Their data analysis showed that carnivorous species that went extinct during the Ice Age were, on average, five times bigger than their fellow carnivores that survived to present day.  

Karen Camarda, associate professor in physics and astronomy, said demand for the program over the years has limited it to only seventh-graders, rather than all middle school girls. More middle schools were represented this year than in previous years as well.

There were 15 different laboratory activities related to everything from making ice cream to the germs in the human mouth. Each girl was able to attend two sessions run by female scientists from Washburn, the University of Kansas, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the National Weather Service Topeka Station. At least two-dozen Washburn students served as campus guides for the girls, who ate lunch at the Union provided by the College of Arts and Sciences.

“We hope that by exposing girls to entertaining science experiences, which are run primarily by women that they will see that science can be fun, that women can do science and that we can do it well. We also try to give them a sense of the many wonderful options and opportunities available to scientists,” Camarda said. She and Susan Bjerke, associate professor, biology, lead the planning efforts at Washburn for the event.