Anna Woodroof is a sustainability specialist and program manager of Earthwatch’s Girls in Science Fellowship. The programme empowers teens to expand their interest in science and technology and to build confidence through hands-on environmental research. Since launching the scheme in 2016, Earthwatch has awarded 40 high school girls the fully funded opportunity to perform scientific research alongside female experts in the field.
“To encourage the next generation, representation is extremely paramount. Girls need to know that women, and especially women of colour, are scientists, engineers, mathematicians and the like. This should be normalised in text books, media and in career exploration.”
I have a bachelor’s degree in sustainability studies from Stony Brook University and a master’s degree in sustainable international development from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.
I started my career at the Community Development Corporation of Long Island (NY) working in storm recovery and energy efficiency for the housing sector. It was a very interesting intersection of climate change and its impact on vulnerable groups of humans.
I started working at Earthwatch, the international environmental charity, about four and a half years ago and really see citizen science as a great way to empower community members with the tools and knowledge to have a seat at the table when it comes to topics of environmental justice.
At non-profits we all wear many hats. As a program manager I am responsible for making sure a variety of programmes meet all deliverables on time and I manage budgets. This sometimes entails developing curriculum, assessing and managing risk, supporting grant writing and proposal development, the facilitation of a programme, and more recently video production for online content.
For the Girls in Science programme, I am in charge of shaping it to meet the needs of the future and ensuring it is serving our targeted audience. It is never a dull moment and you always have a chance to learn something new!
Girls in Science
The Earthwatch Girls in Science programme focuses on career exploration and building confidence for young women who might be interested in STEM. We bring in a variety of examples of STEM through guest speakers, lab tours, and hands-on contributions to science and connect it all through a daily curriculum of creating their own story. We encourage everyone, both guests and the fellows, to share both success and challenges and to build a network for future connections.
The expedition typically has several days of hands-on citizen science research, touring research-grade facilities, speaking with STEM professionals at every level (undergrad, grad, post-grad and expert) and every evening has time as a group to reflect and work on confidence-building skills to tell our own story. At the end of the week we invite fellows to share through creative expression (writing, photo journal, painting, a song etc.) their story and a plan of action moving forward.
From Colorado to California
Over the years this programme has participated in archeology digs in Colorado with Dr Susan Ryan, in the intertidal zone and algal bloom studies sites off the coast of California with Dr Jessica Dutton Johnson and this past year focused on bioacoustics and mass stranding events of dolphins off the coast of Massachusetts with Dr. Laela Sayigh.
Through pre-and post surveys, we have seen increased scores from our fellows in confidence with STEM subjects, an increase in confidence leading and encouraging others, and an increased commitment to take positive action towards a sustainable environment or community. Additionally, fellows feel the impact of hearing the honest and truthful different journeys and paths that women in STEM take and that it is not always a linear path or the path that you expect.
Analysing dolphin data and beyond
Last year’s team focused on bioacoustics. We got to build small hydrophones and deploy them in a test tank and behind kayaks to see what sounds we could pick up. Additionally, we went out on a research-grade vessel to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary with a professional-grade hydrophone to hear pods of dolphins.
This experience was coupled with scanning through and identifying specific signals in dolphin sounds that were sometimes recorded before mass stranding events. These were compared to other sounds recorded. We co-created a podcast, heard from a leading marine micro-plastics researcher to learn about the abundance of plastics in our marine systems and spoke with a professional science reporter for the National Public Radio.
Kayaking was also really fun and was a first for many of the fellows. But, we couldn’t have done any of last year’s amazing elements without our partners at Sea Grant at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Encouraging the next generation
Opportunities like our Girls in Science programme for high school-aged young women are so important because it gives them a chance to experience fieldwork, lab work, and what it is like to be a scientist. We target applicants who may not get these opportunities elsewhere.
From these experiences, fellows are motivated to explore college majors in STEM and even technical schools. These experiences all start to build a network for young women to support them in their path ahead.
We encourage fellows to keep in touch and practice other forms of professional networking with anyone they meet during the experience. This has resulted in lab placement and recommendation letters that bolster applications for students who may not have these opportunities otherwise.
To encourage the next generation, representation is paramount. Girls need to know that women and especially women of colour, are scientists, engineers, mathematicians and the like. This should be normalised in our textbooks, media and in career exploration. Additionally, you don’t have to have a PhD to significantly contribute to STEM and the world of sustainability.
It is so important that society and education systems support young women’s interest in STEM as early as possible.
The future for Earthwatch
While we prepare for the ability to be in the field again in the future, we have been creating and running an Earthwatch at Home virtual programme. We ran our pilot this summer and look forward to creating new opportunities and expanding home-based citizen science (like local air quality monitoring with students and communities). I’m excited to see how we can continue to inspire others to take part in science even in their own back yard.