When Dr. Marian Johnson-Thompson and Dr. Carolyn Cousin were junior high and high school students, they attended segregated classes where textbooks were handed down from nearby white shools, and few teachers took an interest in young black girls who wanted to pursue careers in science.
So Science Discovery Day -- a program of science-oriented lectures and workshops held Saturday at the University of the District of Columbia -- was like a dream come true for both women.
More than 125 youngsters, most from D.C. public schools, attended the day-long event designed to help spark an interest in science among minority-group junior high school students. The participants attended workshops offered by PhDs in 10 disciplines, and a question-and-answer session followed the experiments.
Johnson-Thompson and Cousin, both UDC professors, said they got the idea for the program, which they hope to turn into an annual event, while talking with other members of their newly formed Metropolitan Area Network of Minority Women in Science. Network members have committed themselves, Johnson-Thompson says, to undertaking programs that will motivate minority students to pursue interests in science.
Cousin, who is network president, said Science Discovery Day was designed to give the students a chance to meet and form contacts with persons working in science and related areas. Since most of the students were inner-city children from the D.C. school system, they have not had the same exposure to the sciences as some of their counterparts in private and parochial schools, she added.
In spite of that, interest in each of the disciplines ran high. Both Johnson-Thompson and Cousin said they were amazed at the response to the program. Some students who had heard about the program only at the last minute showed up as early as 8 a.m. Saturday to try and get a spot in any of the workshops.
"We're very proud of the fact that we didn't turn anyone away," Cousin said.
The network presented the program relying solely on the aid of volunteers -- the 20 core members of the group, along with about 125 others who have expressed a willingness to help when they can. Now that network members know how much work is involved in such a program, they will seek assistance from the National Science Foundation for next year's Science Discovery Day, Johnson-Thompson said.
"The main thing we wanted to do was to get the kids involved," said Johnson-Thompson. "You know, you say 'science' to a kid, and their first response is 'ooh, that's too hard.' But this let them get their hands in it and see that the sciences are not all hard, and that they have a profound impact on each aspect of our everyday lives."
Each student attended three workshop sessions and was given an opportunity to evaluate the program afterwards.
"I was very impressed by some of their questions," Cousin said. "It showed me that the interest is out there. You can't just blame the public schools when you question the absence of minorities from the sciences," she said. "There are a lot of other factors which come into play.
"But this shows us that the talent is there, and that maybe we can do some good if we catch them early. If they get interested in the sciences and in science and technology careers now, then when they are ready for college and graduate school, they're going to be able to compete on an even par with everyone.
"You should see some of the talent that our kids have out there -- just going to waste. All of us in the network have a personal commitment to putting an end to that."
In addition to workshops and other educational programs, Johnson-Thompson said network members will be volunteering their own time to work with some of the students in laboratory settings.