Girls Science Camp… The Science

The girls taking count of the aquatic macroinvertebrates at Webber Lake.
The girls learning about aquatic insects together.

Last week I wrote about all the non-science parts of a girls science camp.  To sum it up, an all girls camp is an amazing bonding experience! At Headwaters Science Camp the girls not only got to bond over all the normal teenage things, but they also got to bond over science. As Momo said, “It was really fun to be surrounded by smart girls who were interested in science.”  It was amazing to see a group of high school girls who were passionate about science all working together. The girls were adventurous with their research ideas and thoughts.

Carli holding a dragonfly at camp.
Carli showing her fellow campers how fun it is to hold bugs!

I loved how inquisitive they were; they took the time to learn not only from their instructors, but from each other.  It was interesting, while they all loved science, they had a wide range of interests in science. Alex, for example, loves birds. She always had her binoculars and was willing and patient enough to teach the other girls about the birds she saw. We had quite the list by the end of the week, everything from woodpeckers nesting in camp, to eagles, to pelicans, to countless songbirds. Carli on the other hand is pretty passionate about bugs, and made everyone a little more comfortable catching and observing bugs.They pushed themselves to make great research projects. I don’t know how different their projects would have been with boys around, but I know they would not have been as free with their thoughts and conversations about science.

The girls learning about bugs in Lacy Meadow.
Carli teaching her camp mates about the insects found in Lacy Meadow

Momo, wants to be a biochemist and was curious about water chemistry and wanted to spend time using the chemistry kit to test water. Jamie is very interested in water quality.  As an instructor and the leader of the camp my goal was the teach and mentor the girls on how to do research, but to not get in the way of their creativity or limit their ideas.

Water chemistry at Webber Lake.
Momo and Juju work together to process their water samples.

Jamie wrote to me after camp, “I am so grateful for the Headwaters Girls Science Camp; it taught me to dive into questions I have about the world around me. My instructors gave valuable tips and lessons, while also creating a safe space for everyone to learn and grow. My group and I researched water quality in the Webber Lake area, and tested for ammonia, nitrite, phosphate, and the pH, dissolved oxygen, and total dissolved solids levels.

Jamie enjoying the water quality tests.

I look forward to further research on water sources and want to expand to test for lead, chlorine, and mercury levels, as well as the different kinds of bacteria in the water. I’m curious about how humans impact their drinking water. I also want to find ways to improve the quality of water sources. Being able to research and collect data out in the field opened my eyes up to other scientific careers I didn’t realize existed.”

As the camp leader it was tempting to push the girls towards certain questions and topics, but in the end it was better to guide and watch how their passions translated into projects.  Jamie’s group studied water quality in different areas around Webber Lake.  They found that overall water quality was very good. While they tested many markers of water quality including: salinity, nitrate, phosphate, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and clarity, the biggest difference they saw was in pH. Some of the areas tested were significantly more basic. 

Dylan testing the dissolved oxygen levels in Lacey Creek.

The group hypothesized that this was because of granite substrate nearby. Carli’s group on the other hand was influenced by her love of bugs and they studied insects. Her group compared the macro-invertebrates in the forest and meadow around Webber Lake. They found that there was a higher density and diversity of insects in the meadow than in the forest, while the forest had less variation in the size of populations surveyed.

Regardless of what project they choose, they all learned how to do research; the girls learned how to make mistakes and use them to improve their projects, they learned how to work together, they learned to collect accurate repeatable data. Most of all, they learned how to be scientists!  I think they will all agree with this sentiment from Momo: “Doing science in the field was amazing!”

Research Independence lake from a boat!
Headwaters girls on Independence Lake getting help with their project from a Nature Conservancy Scientist.


Girls Science Camp… so much more than science

bonding at the lake
Girls science camp at Independence Lake.

I was so excited when I learned that Headwaters had the opportunity to partner with the Truckee Donner Land Trust to offer an all-girls science camp this summer. I know that getting more girls into science is important for the future of society and for the careers of girls interested in science.  I even wrote a blog post about girls-only science. But until the girls showed up for the first day of camp, I hadn’t really thought much about the other impacts that an all girls camp could have. Thinking about it now, this is surprising because I spent my youth going to an all-girls sleep-away camp that gave me friendships and memories that are still strong and important to me 20 years after my last summer. It is a time and place in my life that is so special to me that I thought my girls summer camp was unique. I hadn’t imagined being able to create something like that for other girls somewhere else.

Hanging out in the tent.
Hanging out in a tent time at Headwaters Girls Science Camp.

Preparing for the girls science camp, I was focused on details: how to take girls–some who had never been camping before–camping for six days; how to make them feel the most comfortable, what food they would want to eat, how much water we would need, whether they would be ok without showers, what science equipment we would need, how we should structure the girls’ days, whether all the gear would fit in our cars….  I emailed and talked to the girls’ parents about all their concerns about many of these same issues. I still didn’t spend any time thinking about how the girls would bond.

When the girls and parents arrived, it brought back a flood of memories of going to my own camp as a young girl. Arriving at camp had always made me feel excited for activities, time away from my parents, the mentorship of my counselors, and uninterrupted weeks spent with my camp friends. Camp friends are like no other kind of friends. With a group of just girls you can be silly, and fun, and be yourself. You bond in a way that you don’t get to in any other part of your life. As I sat there watching the girls arrive at camp, I realized that I was going to be able to help create a bonding environment like the one I had experienced at my own camp. I was going to be able to foster a place for the girls to be fun, and be themselves. I was thankful that I had planned some great experiences for their science projects and activities like kayaking and swimming, but really glad that I had left an openness in the schedule that was going to be filled with bonding time.   

Campfire time at Girls science camp
Hanging out around the campfire.

And it was.

One of our campers wrote to me after camp, “I became really good friends with the other girls, and we will still keep in touch long camp is over, maybe forever. We bonded over card games, beetles, and classic 80s songs. We had shared memorable experiences like kayaking, swimming at Webber Falls, and looking up at the night sky, filled with beautiful stars.” Another camper wrote, “It was fun to be surrounded by smart girls who were interested in science.”

I loved watching the girls bond. I was envious of their time together. Getting dirty, no showers, camp food, bug bites… none of it mattered… the hardships were bonding experiences. It made me want to be a teenager again, but I took my role as a mentor and stood back while they were having fun. I joined in with song when appropriate, I answered questions about life, or science, or camping; I pushed them to work together, to think… I loved being with them and being their mentor, and I hope that they can appreciate (even just a little) how special this time in their lives was/is.  As one girl said, “This camp was worth all the bug bites, one hundred percent!”

Girls learning from guest scientist Kristin Giordano.
Bonding time with snacks around the picnic table.

Thank you to the Truckee Donner Land Trust for partnering with us and for the amazing campsites on Webber Lake. It was the perfect spot to create a great camp experience. Thank you to Soroptomist International of Truckee Donner for the support for camp. And if you’re wondering about the science the girls experienced during camp, check out my next blog post!


A high school student from Quarry Lane measuring trees as part of her research project on tree growth.

Why is an all-girls science camp important?

Three San Francisco University High School Girls measuring water quality in Van Norden Meadow.
Girls working on research projects at Camp.

Why is an all-girls science camp important? Because there are too few women in science, and that shortage is a problem that can be solved.

Women make great scientists, responsible for everything from the discovery of the earth’s inner core to the development of the theory of radioactivity. Yet today in the United States, women make up only 15-25% of the Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) workforce. Data shows that the gap is actually broadening.  Why are women not as likely to go into a STEM career?  Are they less capable? No, instead, studies show that girls are made to ‘feel’ less capable. This feeling can come from stereotyping, people stating or implying that they aren’t as competent as boys, or even simple things like the toys they are given and their options at home and at school.

A Quarry Lane student learning about soil moisture during her school field trip to the Sierra.
Measuring soil moisture during field research.

Because there are so few women working in STEM jobs, girls don’t see as many role models for themselves in these careers. If, as Marie Wilson said, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” then we have a problem. STEM fields include some of the highest paid jobs in the market. There is already a salary gender gap in the US between men and women, which will widen if women do not become more competitive in STEM jobs. STEM is the fastest growing job sector in the US. If girls want to be competitive in the job market, they are going to need STEM skills.

As a society we will lose out by not having as many women in STEM jobs. The need for future innovators is too high for us to afford leaving anyone out. Numerous studies have shown that groups with greater gender diversity perform better than single gender groups. If we want the workforce to maximize innovation and creativity, we need to actively close the STEM gender gap.

Offering an all-girls science camp that is run entirely by women gives those girls a chance to see and interact with their role models: female scientists. The camp also gives girls a chance to take intellectual risks. They aren’t getting graded, there are no boys to get in the way; they can just experience science and try their best.  While it isn’t the only solution to the problem, girls science camps are one step towards helping more girls become leaders in the sciences.

Two high school researchers searching for terrestrial insects in a Sierra meadow.
Looking for toads during a field survey.

UHS biodiversity projects in Van Norden

Headwaters had a great time working with students from San Francisco University High School’s AP Environmental Science class at the end of September. This A.P. Environmental Science course joined us for an amazing weekend of science in Van Norden Meadow. Students studied water chemistry and how it relates to biodiversity in the wetland meadow. The class split into three groups with different research focuses.

The first built a project around how water chemistry in the wetland meadow is related to the biodiversity of macro-invertebrates. They found that the waterways were characterized by low levels of nutrients and dominated by aquatic macro-invertebrates that are highly sensitive to pollutants. You can read more about their project here. Another group of students looked at wetland soil nutrients and how it related to the amount of vegetation and the diversity of plants. Despite the wetland soils being low in key nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) the study area was heavily vegetated. Learn more about their research here. The third group studied how elevation affects soil nutrients. The group tested soil samples from different elevations around the meadow and on a hillside above the meadow. They found that most soils were deficient in Nitrogen and Phosphorus, but had plenty of Potassium. While the group did not find a correlation between elevation and nutrient composition, but did find a positive relationship between slope steepness and the amounts of nutrients found. The group largely attributed this to finding higher concentrations of nutrients in the flatter wetland meadow than on the steeper hillside.

A huge thank you to the Truckee Donner Land Trust for letting us study in Van Norden Meadow. This meadow is a valuable subalpine meadow habitat that is about to undergo restoration. There is a dam at the end of the meadow that had previously held water back in a small reservoir. The recently exposed soils of the reservoir bed made for a compelling research system where students got to study how well the meadow is adjusting to the reduction in reservoir size. It has been great to see all the improvements in meadow health as a result of the dam holding less water.


Science on Snowshoes

In April, DSC_0156students from the Met Sacramento High School and the Sacramento Adventist Academy came to Donner Summit to work with Headwaters Science Institute in order to study the Sierra snowpack that sources over 60 percent of the state’s drinking water. Students from both schools asked original scientific questions about the factors that affect snowmelt, water quality and availability. During their time on Donner Summit they conducted experiments and collected data in order to try to answer their research question. Headwaters instructors mentored students through conducting science projects while Tahoe Donner XC provided snowshoes that allowed students to travel around the field sites collecting data first-hand.

IMG_20170331_124225307_HDRIMG_20170331_115554109_HDRStudents from the Met Sacramento
High School spent three days at the Clair Tappaan Lodge on Donner Summit. Among the many research projects the class completed, two groups used dye to track meltwater movement in the snowpack. They found that snow temperature, aspect, and crystal type can affect how water drains through the snowpack. These students also found there is a temperature gradient in the snowpack with the snow closest to the group being the warmest. Separate groups tested meltwater chemistry looking at human impacts on water quality and changes in water pH IMG_20170331_100258351across different elevations. All of the students gained valuable experience conducting scientific research, analyzing data, and giving a scientific presentation. This trip was made possible by a lodging scholarship from the Sierra Club and the snowshoes donated from TDXC. In exit surveys, over 80% of students reported that the program positively impacted their view of science.

DSC_0138The Sacramento Adventist Academy DSC_0140program started in their classroom session where students designed research projects on topics that included: comparing pH and dissolved oxygen different
runoff pools and creeks, testing how human impacts can affect water quality, and how to assess tree health from pine cone development. The next day students traveled to Soda Springs, CA where they conducted experiments to test their research question. Many of the student had never seen this much snow before and very were grateful for the snowshoes. Back in the classroom, students used the data they collected to analyze their hypotheses and create scientific posters. One group found that snow at the bottom of the snowpack is more dense and less permeable to water. Another student measured how sediment runoff from unpaved parking lots can decrease water clarity. All in all the program was a big success.DSC_0166

A majority of students reported in surveys that they learned something they would not have learned in their regular classroom. Both of these programs would not have been able to happen without the Truckee Donner Land Trust, which conserved the land students studied, and Tahoe Donner, who donated the use of snowshoes.

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