Rainy days, enduring lessons, all part of inspiring girls award-winning expedition


Muddy, gray water shot out vigorously as Kim McNett, in a glossy suit of soaked rain-gear, rapidly worked her kayak bilge pump. Only she was not bailing water from a boat. The sea-kayak guide, stood on shore at bended knee, ridding water from a trench built around a flooded tent.

McNett was anything but discouraged, “Welcome to Girls of Rainy Fjords!” She yelled, with arms outstretched in triumph

Girls on Icy Fjords is one of several expeditions offered through UAF’s housed Inspiring Girls Expeditions program. Every summer, each year, teams of high school girls, instructors and mountain guides immerse themselves in wilderness, science and art on these tuition-free 12-day excursions. The girls spend time collecting data and analyzing in field projects. Over 200 students have participated to date.

The goal is to spark the girls with an interest in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “They leave with an understanding of why field science is different,” said glaciologist Aurora Roth, one of four UAF researchers instructing the Girls on Ice Alaska expedition this past June.

“Field science,” as she put it, “is this combination of understanding your surroundings and your landscapes and being able to move safely within them.”

The efforts, aimed at igniting interest in STEM fields among a traditionally underrepresented demographic, recently drew a national award for UAF’S Inspiring Girls program. INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, a 40-year-old subscription-based publication serving the higher education industry, listed UAF’s summer expedition program among it’s 2018 Inspiring Programs in STEM Award.

INSIGHT publisher Lenore Pearlstein characterized the magazine’s award as an incentive for change: “To advocate diversity, promote equality and build a stronger US work force, we at INSIGHT recognize the importance of increasing the number of people from underrepresented groups entering the STEM professions.”

UAF and other recipients were recognized in INSIGHT’s September issue.

“The best parts about that are that it feels like we have a good reputation among the university level,” Erin Pettit, a UAF glaciologist and founder of what has developed into a national program. Even though it is for high schoolers, the program is being recognized on the university level. “I appreciate and value having that feeling that we have that respect among our collegial institutions.”

Caitlynn Hanna, a current freshman engineering student at UAF, participated in the 2017 Icy Fjords expedition. Her team spent 12 days in Seward where they collected and analyzed data and studied things like shore birds.

Hanna was inspired seeing “tough, strong ladies in their career field and doing really well in it.” She made lasting friendships with her team members. “We celebrated the one-year anniversary in August,” she said.

On her last day in Seward, she and the other girls wrote letters addressed to themselves one year in the future. “I wrote a lot about the people I was with and things to remember.” Hanna recalled with a laugh, “Like when Rosemary got stuck in the mud.”

Rosemary had to sit down and use both hands to pull her feet out of the mud. She then had to retrieve her wetsuit shoes from the bottoms of the pits.  Courtesy of Caitlynn Hanna

To stay warm after getting out of the Kayaks, the girls started to run laps on the sandy beach. “When she [Rosemary] stepped on it, the sand moved,” said Hanna. “She decided to stand in one place and move her feet. She quickly got stuck in the sand. Like shin deep.”

Rosemary stood, seized by the mud, in her vivid blue raincoat on a foggy, grey beach below a sunless sky. Her eyes peaked down behind her glasses at her predicament while the corners of her mouth turned up, forming the slightest smile.

When Pettit founded the program in Washington in 1999, girls taking part were mainly involved in mountaineering. Since emerging in Alaska in 2012, Girls on Ice has become much more.

Pettit hopes to broaden the ideas on what science is. “It helps them realize there is not one way to be a scientist,” said Pettit.

“Many girls choose not to go into science because we all grow up with very particular ideas of what science is. Science is a lot more than the stereotypes they were given as kids.” In both the scientific and outdoor-adventure worlds that are still very white-male dominant, Pettit said they do anything they can to help give these girls an experience that will give them a leg up.

The program gears the girls up with the confidence that carried into their first college science classes.

Inspiring girls encourages any high school girl with an interest in science, outdoors, art or environment to apply. A team is chosen as a whole. After members reach Alaska, the program provides transportation to the expedition locations well as food, gear and art supplies.

This is not the first time UAF’s Inspiring Girls drew recognition from INSIGHT, an influential publication with a combined print and online subscription base of 60,000, according to its online advertising fact sheet.

Three years ago, UAF’s expedition program earned the magazine’s Inspiring Women in STEM Award.

Lessons from these field expeditions go beyond science.

That rainy trip in Seward expedition’s gear tent was not placed in an ideal location, leading to so much rain collecting underneath it was, as Hanna described it, “like a waterbed.”