Can a group of cheerleaders get more girls interested in STEM?


How one group is trying to dispel stereotypes of cheerleaders and scientists at the same time. 

When I say “cheerleader,” what comes to mind? Skimpy uniforms, lots of makeup, valley-girl vapidity?

Now think “scientist.” How about now? Big glasses, bad hair, painful awkwardness? 

One group of women is challenging both those stereotypes. It’s the Science Cheerleaders.

Playing on the unexpected

On Tuesday night, before the tipoff of what will become another Sixers blowout at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the main event near an entrance of the Well Fargo Center is a group of female scientists.

Thing is, those female scientists are decked out in full cheerleading gear: pom-poms, skintight uniforms, plenty of cleavage.

“I’m Hilary Nicholson. I did my undergraduate degree in biochemistry at Colgate University and now I’m doing my Ph.D. at Brown University in molecular pharmacology and physiology,” Nicholson said, between taking photos with timid teenage boys. “And I’m a Science Cheerleader.”

Tuesday was Science Night at the Sixers game, and Nicholson was one of about two-dozen Science Cheerleaders in attendance.

The group consists of about 250 current or former cheerleaders nationwide, who convene at sporting events or science conferences as if at the flash of the Bat-Signal.

It’s all a little strange, like some elaborate piece of performance art playing on the cognitive dissonance between “science” and “cheerleading.”

“It’s extremely polar,” Nicholson said. “I mean, I stand out on the court and they announce I’m a molecular pharmacology and physiology Ph.D. student, and I have my hair curled and I’m wearing a short-suit and it doesn’t look like what they’re expecting. That polar opposite perception really drives the point home.”

That point is that getting young women to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers remains a challenge.

“Although women make up nearly half of the working population, they remain underrepresented in STEM occupations,” according to a recent report from the Census Bureau. “In 2011, 26 percent of STEM workers were women and 74 percent were men.”

The paths begin diverging as early as middle school, studies find, and stereotypes that science is the exclusive domain of unattractive, awkward white guys have been shown to be a factor in pushing girls out of science fields.

“The persistence of the stereotypes start to turn girls off, and by eighth grade, boys are twice as interested in STEM careers as girls are,” according to research from the National Science Foundation.

Nicholson and other members of Science Cheerleader say the goal is to knock down those stereotypes, broadening perspectives of who is and can be a successful scientist.

Show time

The Science Cheerleaders have a special halftime routine ready to go.

Wendy Brown, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at the University of California, Davis, is crouched behind the hoop with the rest of the dance squad.

“Our ultimate goals are to inspire young people to be interested in science, specifically young girls, and to playfully challenge stereotypes,” she said.

Brown studies cartilage tissue engineering at Davis and is also a current member of the Oakland Raiderettes.

Some current and former members of that dance team are currently suing the Oakland Raiders for unfair labor practices. Factoring in public appearances, the Raiderettes make roughly $5 an hour.

Cheerleading may be a passion, but it’s not much of a career.

“It’s been two years since I’ve danced on a basketball court,” said Brown, who was previously a cheerleader for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. “This’ll be kind of fun.”

The time to go on is now.

With a “Yay, go science!” Brown and her fellow Science Cheerleaders rush onto the court. Tonight they’re joined by dancers from the Drexel and Penn cheerleading teams — many of whom are engineering majors.

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