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Oct. 1, 2022

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GeoGirls all shook up at Mount St. Helens geology, tech camp

15 teen girls get up-close look at work of female scientists

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
11 Photos
Participants in the GeoGirls outdoor volcano science program summer camp simulate a P wave, one of the types of seismic waves that travel through the earth, at the Coldwater Science and Learning Center on Wednesday morning. The program is for middle- and high-school girls in Southwest Washington. This is the first time the camp has been convened in two years.
Participants in the GeoGirls outdoor volcano science program summer camp simulate a P wave, one of the types of seismic waves that travel through the earth, at the Coldwater Science and Learning Center on Wednesday morning. The program is for middle- and high-school girls in Southwest Washington. This is the first time the camp has been convened in two years. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

MOUNT ST. HELENS — Middle-school girls shouted over one another as they compared plastic jugs filled with the sediment-laden water — and smattering of insects — they had collected from an outlet of Coldwater Lake.

“This one is Lared and this one’s Jared,” said Aubrey Gay, a 13-year-old from Ridgefield, as she pointed at bugs the girls had named.

Aubrey was among 15 participants in GeoGirls, a free geology and technology summer camp at Mount St. Helens for middle- and high-school girls. From Aug. 7 to 11, the girls explored the area affected by the volcano’s 1980 eruption, working side-by-side with women scientists in researching the hazards and impacts that volcanic eruptions pose to humans.

The task on Wednesday: complete a stream profile and compare it to sediment transported down the North Fork Toutle River.

“I love geology and biological sciences,” said Lily Black of the Mount St. Helens Institute and one of the camp instructors. “And I love sharing that passion with everyone who comes to camp here.”

The U.S. Geological Survey and the Mount St. Helens Institute launched GeoGirls in 2015. This was the camp’s first week back since 2019, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program usually receives 100 applicants and admits 25, but this year organizers reduced the number of participants as a pandemic precaution.

“This year we just wanted to come back from COVID,” said Elizabeth Westby, a USGS geologist. “We ended up receiving about the same number of applicants as we have participants.”

A day in the mountains

Exploration begins on the camp’s first day with a trip into the dark caverns of Ape Cave and through the Trail of Two Forests before heading up to the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater, where the camp meets. The girls divvy into groups of five, each with one high school mentor. Twenty-two adults oversee the program, including local middle school teachers, two industry partners, two university students and representatives from USGS and the Mount St. Helens Institute.

Kaitlyn Trestrail is a field geologist from GHD Services Inc., one of the industry partners. This year the civil engineering company donated $10,000 to the program. Another industry partner, Brunton International, supplied compasses and the USGS supplied the seismometers.

“Honestly, the girls are more like our assistants,” Trestrail said. “We’re showing them what it’s like to be a scientist by having them troubleshoot and problem-solve.”

Each day, the girls follow a loose schedule of day hikes, cool-off time in Coldwater Lake and research projects. The girls record and analyze data with seismometers, examine rocks and learn about the history of the volcano. On the last day they use their new skills to respond to a simulated volcanic eruption. The drill teaches them to read earthquake monitors, study ground deformation, detect gas emissions and communicate hazards to the public.

“For age 13, they have an intuitive sense about this stuff,” Westby said. “Observations they have can bring a freshness to what you’re working on as a researcher.”

The program also emphasizes the important intersection of art and science.

Alisa Kotash, a post-doctoral researcher from the University of Oklahoma who uses they/them pronouns, led a geochemistry-focused group Wednesday afternoon as girls quietly peered at rocks under microscopes and used a combination of watercolor and salt to make textured portraits of their minerals.

“As a scientist I realized that there’s art in science, but we don’t talk about it or celebrate it,” they said.

The time doubles as a quiet moment during the week for girls to connect with each other and digest what they’ve learned.

Kotash said their favorite part of the program is “being able to hear what everyone’s talents are, what they like.”

“Having that medium allows for time to connect with the rocks around,” they said.

Seismic effects

Women are vastly underrepresented in the STEM fields, occupying only 27 percent of the STEM jobs in the U.S. in 2021. For many girls, the camp is an opportunity to see women in these fields firsthand and realize the options they have in future careers.

“It’s really cool to have girls who are interested in the same things as me,” said Lindsey Knight, a 13-year-old from Vancouver. “It’s really empowering.”

Gina Roberti, science educator coordinator at the Mount St. Helens Institute, helped run the weeklong program. She said that in attending scientific conferences, she’s had past GeoGirls come up to her who are now geologists or other scientists.

“We say that once you’re a GeoGirl, you’re a GeoGirl for life,” she said. “We look forward to it all year.”

The camp is free to girls (whether cisgender or trans) with support from sponsors American Association of University Women, the Association of Women Geoscientists, Cowlitz Indian Tribe Arts & Education Fund, The Honorable Frank L. and Arlene G. Price Foundation and individual donors.

The program looks for those with scientific interest and financial or experiential need, though applications are open to any girls who are curious about the outdoors.

Columbian staff writer

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