At the culmination of an empowering weeklong experience, Elizabeth Urban was coconspirator of a quirky celebration—a geology dance party. “Instead of a disco ball, we had a petrographic microscope,” she said. Dancing to ABBA while admiring the projected cross-polarized light on the wall was just one of the memorable moments that Urban, now a University of Washington undergraduate student in Earth and space sciences, recalls from her time as a high school mentor at GeoGirls.
Run by the Mount St. Helens Institute, the 5-day, 4-night volcanology and technology summer camp for middle school cis and transgender girls has 25 coveted spots for participants, allocated in a competitive application process each year.
GeoGirls is a collaboration between the Mount St. Helens Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Cascades Volcano Observatory, with support from universities, schools, agencies, and private companies. The camp experience, held each summer in the area affected by the 1980 eruption, is fully funded, allowing participation by girls who might never have been to camp before. GeoGirls cofounder Kate Allstadt said, “I really love that we are able to take anyone who seems like they might really benefit from it.”
Allstadt, a geophysicist at the USGS Geologic Hazards Science Center in Golden, Colo., cofounded the camp during her National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship. The camp, now in its sixth year, is staffed by working scientists, science teachers, and high school student mentors. The idea is to engage girls in understanding that female scientists are normal people with interesting lives, “not just nerds in white lab coats,” Allstadt said.
“Big Volcano Nerd” and Other Mentors
In her career with the USGS, Allstadt uses geophysics to model where landslides and liquefaction might happen after earthquakes. She traces her own start in science to two inspiring teachers, science and math camps, and visits to national parks. “I’ve visited a lot of amazing landscapes across our country,” she said. GeoGirls grew out of her vision to merge science mentorship with the beautiful landscape of Mount St. Helens.
Another of the scientists involved in GeoGirls is Angie Diefenbach, a geologist with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)–USGS Volcano Disaster Assistance Program at Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash. Diefenbach’s expertise is photogrammetry—creating 3-D models of terrain. During the 2019 GeoGirls camp, she led a challenge in which student participants worked in teams to design a device that could fly over and photograph the volcanic landscape.
“They gave us a camera that could survey the pumice plains, and we had to come up with a way to suspend it from an air balloon, trialing different designs,” said Sophia Grechishkin, 13, who attended in summer 2019.
Upon arrival at camp, “I was really nervous,” said Grechishkin. She soon found the reception welcoming. “Right off the bat I made a lot of friends,” she said. Indeed, some of the girls become close friends, and networking between year cohorts created a hub of “strong women that help each other out,” Diefenbach says.
A transformation from nervous and uncertain to poised and confident is something GeoGirls science education manager Sonja Melander sees as a hallmark of the program. Melander, a self-identifying “big volcano nerd,” made a career shift from research to education after earning a master’s degree studying Italian caldera volcanism.
GeoGirls, explained Melander, creates a space where it’s okay to talk about challenges and how to deal with them. “Gender always comes up in a big way,” said Melander, “whether it’s about being a woman in general or if it’s about nonbinary gender identity.”
The program is valuable, she explained, because many participants feel overlooked in their regular settings. “There’s a big confidence gap,” said Melander. Geoscientists are often portrayed as “the stereotypical image of someone with a beard and a hammer—someone who [most girls] can’t quite relate to,” she said.
During their multiday experience with scientists, participants “see how awesome [the scientists] are in their careers and come to know them as a humans,” perhaps discovering a shared admiration for Harry Potter, for example.
Importance of Mentorship
Diefenbach wishes she’d had an opportunity like GeoGirls as a middle schooler. She credits her own interest in geology to a female mentor—her older sister, now a practicing geologist. “I didn’t really want to do the same thing as my older sister,” she said, but caved after exploratory university courses, realizing geology combined her love of the outdoors with science.
At GeoGirls, working in small groups, the mentorship benefits are multifaceted. Middle schoolers benefit from high school mentors, who in turn benefit from mentorship by scientists and teachers. Urban is one of several former GeoGirls high school mentors now pursuing studies in geology.
Paralleling the program itself, during the impromptu dance party, where costumes ranged from dinosaurs to cavemen and knights, “the middle schoolers were a little more hesitant,” said Urban, “but they gradually broke out of their shells.”
Grechishkin, who described herself as “not really a nature girl,” summoned the courage to crawl through a lava tube and wade into ponds and rivers to sample volcanic sediments.
“Even if geology doesn’t end up being your career path…it will open you up to lots of different opportunities,” said Urban. So as advice for other girls considering the program, Urban said, “Absolutely do it! It’s kind of a once in a lifetime experience.”
—Lesley Evans Ogden (@ljevanso), Science Writer