Girls can do everything

3 May 2012

190 schoolgirls came to the 10th Girls' Day at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Under the motto "Science is Exciting", they built computers, discovered the chemistry of colors, and solved tricky crimes. The mentors of the Ada Lovelace Project (ALP) were there to advise and guide them.

Lara is collecting finger prints. The ten-year-old spreads graphite on a pane. She places a strip of tape over it and the piece of evidence is collected. "What about that dirt on the floor?" the schoolgirl asks her two comrades in the "The Three Salt Crystals" detective team. "I think that there are a few hairs in it." The trio is investigating the crime scene where a particularly devious theft has occurred. A cabinet that has been broken into bears witness to the crime. The young criminologists will interrogate suspects and ask them tough questions.

"People say that girls have a talent for language and boys are good at technology. But this simply isn't true: Girls can do everything," says Irene Alt, Rhineland-Palatinate's Minister for Integration, Family, Children, Youth, and Women, to the 190 girls who have come to take part in the 10th Girls' Day on the JGU campus. The event is organized by the Ada Lovelace Project (ALP), the aim being to show schoolgirls just how exciting natural sciences and technology can be.

Why do spiders have blue blood?

"We are sure that you will find subjects like this to be interesting," adds JGU's Vice President, Professor Dr. Mechthild Dreyer. "You will find out why spiders have blue blood, how to surf safely on the Internet, and will also be working in a sound studio. And we are offering you this in the hope that it will inspire an interest in natural sciences and technology."

Speeches are well and good, but Lara wants to see for herself and so she decided to register for the criminology workshop. "I read a lot of crime novels and want to find out for myself what it is like to solve a crime." But before being set loose on the scene, she'll need some training beforehand. The girls learn how to collect footprints, how to analyze soil samples and decode secret messages. For each of these, they are required to use processes derived from chemistry, mathematics, and physics.

Ada Lovelace mentors provide help

The detectives will have the mentors from the Ada Lovelace Project at their side to help them. They are university students who are studying the subjects that the girls are to be given insight into. These mentors are actually much closer to the girls in terms of age than teachers or lecturers.

Nadine Leber has been studying biomedical chemistry for just over a year. "My course requires that I spend a lot of time in the lab and I have to read a lot. Doing this is a nice change and I can earn a little money on the side as well." Twenty mentors are on campus at this year's Girls' Day, and they are being provided with support by faculty staff working in disciplines such as biology, chemistry, and geosciences. Together they are offering 15 workshops.

"Now you can install the RAM. This version of the memory card has a notch on the lower edge. I always put it in A1, the first one in the PC." Six girls bend over the PC motherboard, while Marc Schaumburg explains the next step. He is showing them how to assemble a PC.

Girls build their own PC

"I've been coming to Girls' Day for seven years," explains the business owner from Wiesbaden. "Unfortunately, interest has waned a bit, particularly on the part of the media. Once, we even used to have a television crew here." A touch of disappointment is apparent in his voice. However, his attitude changes instantly when he starts to talk to the schoolgirls. "I have also held courses like this for boys. You are just as good, if not better. You are more careful. The boys tend to rush it when they work."

"The first Girls' Day did not even take place on campus but at IBM," explains Claudia Manz. This is the first time she has been responsible for organizing the event and she is also project manager of the Ada Lovelace Project at JGU. "Back then 30, 40 girls took part." In the following year twice as many were able to participate, and the Girls' Day was moved to the University. Now, up to 250 girls can register to take part, but the 2012 event has not been fully booked.

"It's an administrative problem: Some schools schedule their hiking trips on Girls' Day, which is not good for us." And not everybody knows that the original target group of schoolgirls in seventh to tenth grade was extended to cover the range fifth to twelfth grade.

More than just a Girls' Day

However, Manz is not worried. She is happy with the 190 participants. What really worries her is that, as she puts it, "Girls' Day alone is not likely to have a sufficiently lasting effect. So we have decided to offer workshops throughout the entire year." The concept of arousing the interest of girls in natural sciences and technical disciplines is attracting considerable support. In addition to Irene Alt's ministry, two other state ministries are involved, and these are providing financial support, as is the European Social Fund and the agency for employment.

All this is of no concern to Lara. She has just got her detective badge and is off to the crime scene. "What do I need to take with me?", she asks the mentors. But they can't help her anymore because they have assumed the roles of perpetrator and victim. It's now down to Lara and her colleagues to figure it out on their own. But there's no doubt that they will solve the case.