Something's fishy in Great Explorations conference

Roughly 300 girls took part in the program to encourage them to pursue science, math, technology and engineering.

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Astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger (right) listens to Amy Beirne Verbeten (far left) tell her story about education decisions she made at Whitman College.

WALLA WALLA - The smell of fish was strong in the Whitman College lab, as biologist Joelle Pomraning walked up and down the aisle, getting a dozen young girls ready to dig into the dead perch in front of them.

"Who wants to start cutting fish? All hands up." Pomraning called out.

All hands of the 12 girls shot up, followed by one enthusiastic question.

"Ooh. Can we start with cutting their eyes?"

"Not yet Natalie," Pomraning answered.

It was a scene that has been repeated every other year since 1984, as members of the Walla Walla Branch of the American Association of University Women hosted their biennial Great Explorations conference.

On Saturday, roughly 300 area fifth- through eighth-grade girls took part in the all-morning program geared toward teaching and encouraging them to pursue careers in science, math, technology and engineering. But not with lectures.

Event Registrar Carol Morgan said each of the 22 classes the girls could attend were designed for hands-on training, like dissecting a fish. But just as important was each class was led by a role model, a woman who had chosen the sciences for a career.

"It is very visual and very hands on ... but the presenters are just as much on display," Morgan said.

In some cases, the presenters went through the program when they were girls.

"It showed me that women can be scientists," geologist Lindsay Morgan Chutas said, only minutes before teaching a class where she used Slinkys to show what happens with shock waves in an earthquake.

Pomraning, a fish biologist with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, also went through the program as a girl.

"It was awesome. We got to dissect and poke at fish too," she said. Later she added, "When I was in grade school it (science careers) was still a bit of a man's world."

Ironically, down the hall from Pomraning's smelly fish dissection class, a waft of pleasant aromas filled the lab where Amy Amerein introduced a group of girls to the basics of chemistry, cleverly disguised in a class on how to make your own lip gloss and skin cream.

"You should be thinking about what flavor you want to add," Amerein said, as the girls worked in teams to melt bees wax, coconut butter and coconut oil in small beakers set on hotplates.

"I already know what I want," Lindsey said, as she melted her concoction. "Berry."

"It's been berry all the way through," Amerein joked. "I thought it would be chocolate or bubble gum. See it just goes to show you that you never know."

The morning program isn't just for kids; parents were also encourage to attend a seminar and panel discussions on how to motivate their children to pursue the sciences.

The program featured keynote speaker and NASA shuttle astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, who graduated from Whitman College.

While the science classes are strictly for girls, Metcalf-Lindenburger's keynote address was free and open to the public.

The 22 presenters were also volunteers who work in the fields of architecture, astronomy, engineering, health, geology, biology, math and other science-related fields.

Each participating girl was given the chance to pick three of the 22 classes to attend. One of the most popular was the "Simple Beauty Recipes" class, where not only did they learn how to make lip gloss, but they got to learn some chemistry.

"I think that all the good jobs in the future are going to require math and science," Amerein said, then added, "And I am happy to encourage everybody, boys and girls."

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