GeoGirls take on science at Mount St. Helens

Five-day camp takes middle schoolers to volcano for hands-on research

By Susan Parrish, Columbian Education Reporter


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&#8226; Learn more about the 2016 GeoGirls on Mount St. Helens at /<a href=""></a>

&#8226; Science and Learning Center at Coldwater: <a href=""></a>

&#8226; GeoGirls was inspired by Girls on Ice, a mountaineering adventure and learning experience for young women on Mount Baker, an active volcano near Bellingham.

&#8226; Learn more at

• Learn more about the 2016 GeoGirls on Mount St. Helens at /

• Science and Learning Center at Coldwater:

• GeoGirls was inspired by Girls on Ice, a mountaineering adventure and learning experience for young women on Mount Baker, an active volcano near Bellingham.

• Learn more at

MOUNT ST. HELENS — Mai Brodniak crouched on the bank of Coldwater Lake while Cynthia Gardner, a U.S. Geological Survey research geologist, showed her how to stack sieves with various sizes of screens to separate the lake’s gravel by size.

“Try pouring water through the top. See how it starts to work once you’re wet-sieving it instead of dry-sieving it,” instructed Kate Norton, a science technician with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Under Gardner and Norton’s direction, Mai poured a bucket of gravelly lake water through the tower of metal sieves.

Mai, 13, who attends Vancouver iTech Preparatory Middle School, was one of 20 girls from Southwest Washington and the Portland metro area chosen to attend GeoGirls, a five-day camp on Mount St. Helens that immersed middle school girls in hands-on field research with women scientists.

Kate Allstadt, a research geophysicist with the USGS, dreamed up the camp, which is focused on encouraging middle school girls to consider a career in earth science.

“The research shows that middle school is when girls start to lose interest in science, relative to boys,” Allstadt said.

Allstadt was determined to pique girls’ interest in science. She wrote a National Science Foundation grant and was approached by several women scientists who volunteered to help.

“It started as a day camp with a field trip,” Allstadt said. “But it kept growing.”

The Aug. 3-7 camp was offered through the Mount St. Helens Institute. Costs were covered through the foundation grant, along with grants from the American Association of University Women and the Association for Women Geoscientists. This was the pilot year, but the program is expected to continue with more middle school girls next summer.

The camp is patterned after the Girls on Ice program, a free wilderness science education program geared for high school girls.

The girls hiked in Ape Cave on the south side of the volcano. They hiked on the volcano’s pumice plain and worked with researchers from Boise State University.

Mai said the group did a “huge hike at the pumice plain to analyze the soil and rocks to determine what kind of rocks they are and what time frame they came from. Then we can tell which blast they came from.”

For two nights, they camped at Ridge Camp on Windy Ridge. For some girls, it was their first camping experience.

“It was my first time hiking. My first time camping. My first overnight trip,” said Jasmine Shigeno,13, who attends Hockinson Middle School. “A grandma cooked great food at camp. Now my expectations for camping are really high.”

On Coldwater Lake, the girls sieved the water and then recorded the size of the gravel samples in their field notebooks. Then they waded into the lake and used liquid probes to measure the lake’s water temperature, pH level and conductivity.

As the girls settled on an enormous stump submerged in Coldwater Lake, scientist Gardner leaned against a fallen tree on the bank and wove the geological story of the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens. The lake was formed as a result of the eruption.

Gardner described her work as studying the eruptive history and processes on volcanoes for “35 years and counting and enjoying every moment.”

Liz Westby, a USGS geologist, said that throughout the week she was impressed with the girls’ attention to detail.

“They come up with great observations,” Westby said. “We were on an outcrop looking at pyroclastic flow deposits and a lahar down below. A girl said it looked like brush strokes. They were coming up with college-level concepts and observations without having the terminology.”

Kim Abegglen, a Hockinson Middle School science teacher and GeoGirls volunteer, had encouraged her female students to apply to the camp.

“This is the best classroom ever,” said Abegglen as she looked around at the girls working in the field. She also is a volunteer volcano naturalist with the Mount St. Helens Institute. “These girls are having experiences most girls will not have. This is a great opportunity to do science in the field, work with women scientists and have the opportunity to solve real-world problems, collecting real data.”

Later, during a hike along the Hummocks Trail to collect more water samples, the girls talked about pursuing science and math careers: entomology, ecology, biology, engineering, brain surgery and more.

“So far, it hasn’t let me down,” said Mai about GeoGirls. “Anything that involves science has my interest.”