Girls sink their teeth into STEM … and sharks

Izzy Greene cuts into shark as Bethany Gillespie and Leah Eichler watch.


BG Independent News


The slimy, smelly spiny dogfish sharks were placed on the lab tables in front of the young girls.

“Ewwwww,” one girl said squeamishly.

“I can never eat gummy sharks again,” another girl said.

This was the moment they had been waiting for at Tech Trek week – shark dissection. They were armed with gloves, scalpels and scissors to open up the gray sharks native to Australia.

Some were a little timid about slicing into the sharks.

“Oh my goodness,” one girl said with apprehension.

Others were ready to explore.

“I call dibs on making the first cut,” another said with glee.

The shark dissection class Wednesday at Bowling Green State University’s Tech Trek week was just one of several sessions to help the participants realize that their female gender should not keep them from careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The fifth annual Tech Trek, supported by the American Association of University Women, is intended to make STEM educations and careers more accessible to girls. The program is only open to girls, so they are encouraged to pursue their STEM interests in an environment free from stereotypes, and given the chance to believe in themselves.

Girls get ready to dissect sharks in BGSU lab.

Tech Trek is based off of the research titled “Why So Few?” which shows that women enter STEM fields at much lower rates compared to their male peers.  The research also showed that the crucial time to get to girls before they give up on STEM careers is in junior high.

“The most critical time to impact them is between seventh and eighth grade,” said Dr. Deborah Wooldridge, professor and director of the BGSU School of Family and Consumer Sciences, who is head of the Tech Trek week. “We expose them to all areas of STEM.”

The 55 girls all came to the camp with existing interests in STEM subjects. The camp builds on those interests, and teaches them that their gender should not dampen their enthusiasm or slow their success.

“There are lots of subliminal messages out there – that’s just not what women do,” Wooldridge said of STEM careers. Many STEM professions are still male-dominated. “Computer science is tough to break into,” she said.

By the end of the week, the girls should have no doubt that they are mightier than the glass ceiling that may have held back earlier generations.

“It’s interesting to watch the change in the girls,” Wooldridge said.

In addition to core courses and workshops, the girls also go on field trips and have chances to talk to women who have made their careers in STEM professions. The girls visited Owens-Illinois, where they met with women researchers.

“They have a large group of women in STEM,” Wooldridge said of O-I. “We are letting them see other women in STEM so they have a role model.”

The girls also got to interact with a panel of women in a “speed dating,” type of setting, where they could go around and ask questions of women in different STEM careers.

Topics covered during the week were:

  • Science: neurobiology, microbiology, chemistry, cancer in brain cells, physics, biology, kinesiology, and physics.
  • Technology: robotics, computer coding, cyber security, app development and blog site development for camp blogging.
  • Engineering: civil engineering and water filtration systems, field trip to O-I, and lean practices in manufacturing.
  • Mathematics and statistics integrated through the curriculum.

Cari Ritzenthaler gives instructions to girls.

Back in the shark dissection lab, BGSU grad student Cari Ritzenthaler was explaining her previous study of bugs in Hawaii. “But I really, really love sharks,” she told the girls.

Ritzenthaler gave some shark safety instructions. Wear gloves. Cut away from your body. Sharks are very oily and slippery. The poison sacks on the spines had already been removed, but the teeth are still quite sharp.

The girls were hesitant, but inquisitive.

“Can we cut open the stomach?” one asked.

“Absolutely. I recommend that you open the stomach,” Ritzenthaler said.

With an occasional groan coming from the girls, they worked to identify the liver, ovaries, intestines, gall bladders, stomachs, spleens and hearts. Some were too squeamish to do the eyeballs.

Some lab tables had the extra treat of dissecting sharks that were pregnant.

Baby sharks found inside sharks being dissected

“Those are our babies,” one girl said as she held the tiny sharks in her palm.

The lesson was on sharks. But the girls were learning so much more.

“There are so many different things we can grow up to be,” said Izzy Greene, from Genoa.

“I think that women can do anything they want to do,” said Leah Eichler, from Rockford.

So much for that glass ceiling.