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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

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A Saturday of science: inspiring young girls’ careers

On 12 November, more than 240 girls aged 9-14 descended upon the Geneva University Science building for the second Geneva edition of Expand Your Horizons. This initiative, started in the United States in 1974, aims to inspire young girls to consider scientific careers by giving them a chance to do fun, hands-on experiments in all sorts of technical and scientific fields.

The philosophy of Expand Your Horizons is to set the example: all workshops and career booths are staffed by women scientists, so that the girls can really identify with the scientists and feel that they could be them.

For the 2011 Geneva event, the participants, recruited from nearby public and private schools, both from France and Switzerland, could choose from 11 different workshops, including building a solar car, programming a robot, discovering the underlying chemistry in a kitchen or casting their own medal.

Some of the girls got to build their own cloud chamber to “see the invisible” cosmic rays.  (photo credit: Doris Chromek-Burckhart)

The workshop leaders came not only from organizations and companies like Novartis, Merck Serono, and EPFL, but also from universities in Lisbon and Liverpool. Twelve female physicists from CERN lead three different workshops where the kids got to build their own cloud chamber to see cosmic rays, play with interactive setups about the unanswered questions we are trying to tackle at CERN, and have cool fun with liquid nitrogen. There was also a booth where the girls had the whole Particle Zoo to play with, posters showing women from CERN experiments, and a pop-up book of the ATLAS detector. They could talk with the physicists, asking all sorts of questions, finding more about CERN and what physicists do.

Monica Dunford, who coordinated the CERN women’s participation in this workshop, enthralls her audience at the CERN booth.  (photo credit: Doris Chromek-Burckhart)

Some already knew though. When I asked the kids attending our workshop: “What does a physicist do?” several hands eagerly shot up in the air. One little girl sitting in the front row proudly answered: “She does physics!”

It was hard to tell who had more fun, the scientists or the kids. In our workshop, we dipped balloons and gummy bears in liquid nitrogen and made a water jet similar to Geneva’s famous landmark, using expanding liquid nitrogen to push water out of a sealed container.

Creating a Higgs field and watching which particles (from the Particle Zoo) are influenced by it and acquire mass. (photo credit: Doris Chromek-Burckhart)

The girls still had wonder in their eyes as they left, taking not only lasting memories of their experience but also goodies like memory sticks – thanks to the Marie Curie – ACEOLE project, playing cards or magic blocks explaining particle physics, courtesy of the CERN education program.

Initiatives like Expand Your Horizons have been paying off and the number of women in scientific fields is increasing. At CERN, where about 10,000 scientists are employed by hundreds of institutes from roughly 70 countries, women scientists now account for about 18% of all physicists and engineers. This percentage is much higher among young scientists and gives the pulse for how women are doing in physics in these countries.

Pauline Gagnon

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