Bringing Field Biology to the Girl Scouts

By Cheryl Knott, GPOCP Executive Director
What do you call doing science outdoors?  Field biology!  On May 25-27 my team here in the US ran a Field Biology Encampment for Girl Scouts in Massachusetts, including girls of all ages from Kindergartners to 12th graders!  Much of my orangutan fieldwork in Indonesia is currently supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  As a part of all NSF grants, scientists look for ways to reach out to the broader community with our particular expertise.
Girls practiced the techniques we use to observe orangutans. Photo © Photo Christianne Mager.
As girls move from childhood into adolescence in the US, they show a dramatic drop in both their involvement in the outdoors and their interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. I thought that getting girls involved in field biology – outdoor science – would be a great way to address both of these issues. And, I naturally thought of the Girl Scouts because of my role as a Girl Scout leader for the past 9 years.
Girls set up tree plots and measured and identified trees. Photo © Valerie Clausen.

My team of undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs and recent PhD graduates from Boston University spent the past year designing a curriculum that would teach girls, through hands-on outdoor activities, about Animal Observation, Wilderness Navigation, Habitat Assessment and Wildlife Conservation. Each of the subjects involved age-specific activities for Daisy (K-1st grade), Brownie (2nd-3rd grade), Junior (4th-5th grade) and Cadette/Senior/Ambassador (Middle and High school) Girl Scouts. The program was also structured around the 3 leadership steps in Girl Scout programs: Discover, Connect and Take action.

Girls learned how to clean up the water and sea birds after ocean oil spills. Photo © Christianne Mager.
The 2 night, 3 day event was held at Camp Cedar Hill in Waltham, MA and included 80 girls and 30 adults.  The first night, the girls met their team of young female scientists/facilitators and heard their stories. Having the program led by these young women also let the girls meet role models and envision themselves pursuing this type of work in the future. We capped the evening with a screening of our film Person of the Forest to show girls about our orangutan research in Indonesia and the connection between studying animals and conserving them.
Girls of all ages camped together and learned about field biology.
The next day the girls rotated between each of the 4 stations – spread across the wooded areas in the Cedar Hill Camp. Activities included leaf and tree identification, measuring tree diameters, using a compass and binoculars, establishing forest plots to map mature trees, games involving primate foraging, examining primate teeth and skulls to learn about dietary adaptations, mapping home ranges, making terrariums, cleaning up oil spills, and observation of “wildlife” in trees. Adults also had a chance to participate, as I led the leaders through some of the same activities during separate morning and afternoon sessions. Saturday night brought a grand campfire for all participants, a communal meal based on Indonesian cuisine, and the songs, skits and s’mores traditional to Girl Scout camping.
Facilitators included Ariel Hyre, Andrea DiGiorgio, Lara Durgavich, Lexi Lang, Erin Kane, Andrea Blackburn, Faye Harwell, Cheryl Knott. Not pictured: Caitlin O’Connell, Amy Scott, Ishrat Chowdhury and Alora Rando.
The girls told us they had a fabulous time!  Our pre- and post assessment also showed a significant increase in the girls’ knowledge of primates, understanding of conservation issues, and the ability to study, quantify, navigate, and map their environment. Our next step will be to revise our curriculum and make the program available to Girl Scouts, and others, everywhere. We hope that the girls left with new knowledge that will increase their enjoyment of both science and the natural world around us. Maybe some of them will even grow up to join me studying wild orangutans in Borneo!