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‘Because Girls Can Do Anything’

GEMS conference encourages careers in math and science.

The first step, Betel Aklilu told students at Dogwood Elementary School, was to crush a bunch of strawberries. But they weren’t making fruit smoothies. Instead, Aklilu was showing students how to see a strand of DNA, called by scientists the building blocks of life.

“Since strawberries have eight sets of chromosomes, you can see their DNA with the naked eye,” explained Aklilu, a student at Lee High School.

This was not the usual science class at Dogwood. Akililu, along with other high school students, led a session to expose her class to the mysteries of biology. The students, fifth and sixth grade girls, were participating in the Girls Excelling in Math and Science (GEMS) conference.

On March 11, nearly 400 Fairfax County fifth and sixth grade girls, and a few boys, marched into Dogwood to participate in the morning-long program designed to encourage young girls to take an interest in math, science and engineering.

Although women make up about 50 percent of the general work force in the U.S., they only represent 9 percent of workers in the science and engineering community. In Fairfax County from 1997 to 2003, the enrollment in computer science classes and programs was 76 percent boys, 24 percent girls.

THE EVENT, co-sponsored by Dogwood and its corporate sponsor, Lockheed Martin, and the American Association of University Women (AAUW), attracted students from 18 elementary schools in the county.

More than 20 professional women with careers in math and science led workshops during the conference.

“I hope these people inspire you and help you dream things you never thought possible,” said Linda Martin, the gifted and talented teacher at Dogwood who organized the conference.

GEMS started in 1991 through the AAUW. Three years ago the group formed a partnership with Dogwood to provide the space for the conference.

Marilyn Silvey, a member of the AAUW, said the conference was started to inspire girls to continue studies in the fields of math, science and technology.

For far too long girls have been discouraged from these types of careers, said Bea Malone, co-president of AAUW’s Reston branch.

In another room during the conference, Capt. Susanne Schulz, a C-38 pilot with the Washington, D.C. Air National Guard, began her talk, called “Who Wants to be a Pilot,” by reviewing some of the first women pilots in history.

Interspersed in her presentation, Schulz would ask students why women broke into careers previously barred to them. In unison, the class would reply: “Because girls can do anything.”