She's Getting Cheerleaders Into STEM Careers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you don't have to have a degree to be a scientist.
By Joshua Eferighe
Darlene Cavalier interrupts our phone conversation with an important update: “I’m staring at a squirrel here in Philadelphia.” Her interest has been sparked by a program called Project Squirrel, in which users report their observations about the ubiquitous furry rodents. For Cavalier, a professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, it’s the perfect encapsulation of “citizen science.”
Cavalier, 50, has become a leading national booster for the idea that the general public can and should be a part of the scientific process by collecting data for researchers around the world. It’s a fitting role for the former college cheerleader who launched Science Cheerleaders, a nonprofit organization consisting of current and former NFL, NBA and college cheerleaders pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
Aside from being a valuable social distancing activity when much scientific fieldwork is disrupted, enlisting more people to collect data and observations about our changing climate is more important than ever. Take the squirrels. “It’s awfully warm out here,” Cavalier says. “And the fact that I am watching squirrels on the park, in early March, is not normal.”
By showing that cheerleaders have STEM careers, it shows kids that anyone can do science and STEM.
Her scientific instincts did not arrive early. Cavalier studied communications at Temple University, where she cheered. The science bug bit while she worked at Discover magazine in 1991. She worked on the Discover Awards, stuffing envelopes with the magazines and the award application forms, and entering responses into the computer. Reading the entries, she was introduced to technological innovations in an easy-to-understand way, based on how the forms were structured.
She kept thinking, “Holy cow, I can’t believe these amazing people were doing so many things around the world,” when she’d devoted her life largely to cheerleading and dance.
In 2004, Cavalier decamped to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, where she specifically set out to see if there was a place in science for people who didn’t have science degrees. What she found was that she was not alone, meeting others who weren’t too caught up with their pedigree to make a difference or who was motivated because they were afflicted with health issues and had no choice. This is also where she’d develop the ideas that would change her life forever.
It started with a blog she ran between 2006 and 2011, called Science Cheerleader. She would publish interviews with members of Congress, science leaders and researchers about the unrealized role of “regular” people in advancing science. “Because of my background as a cheerleader and the title of the blog, I started hearing from pro cheerleaders who were pursuing science careers,” she says.
There are now more than 300 cheerleaders involved in Science Cheerleaders — helping the nonprofit that emerged from that blog buck the traditional image of these women. Of the San Francisco 49ers’ 40 cheerleaders, Cavalier says, 20 were pursuing STEM careers as of last season. “Every appearance that they do with the Science Cheerleaders, they engage people in local citizen science activities,” she says.
Two other organizations also emerged from the blog. SciStarter, a website, offers a range of citizen science projects (including Project Squirrel). The Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) network brings together academic research, informal science education, citizen science programs, and non-partisan policy analysis to engage citizens. “The general idea is that Science Cheerleaders cast a wide net to inspire people in public spheres traditionally not connected to science, then move them to SciStarter, where the public can fully engage in citizen science, which, eventually may lead them to ECAST,” she tells me.
SciStarter went on to be adopted in part by Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society in 2014, making it possible for both dreams to have their own lane. The program now offers 3,000-plus projects, fuels new areas of research for multiple universities and is used by Verizon for its corporate volunteer engagement program as well as by Girl Scouts to earn citizen science badges. “Darlene has a really great ability to keep a pulse on what the broader community needs, and to figure out ways that she can collate those needs into something that’s usable,” says Shannon Dosemagen, executive director of Public Lab, a community that develops and applies open-source tools for environmental investigation.
A big part of the battle for Cavalier, a mother of four, is fighting the stigma that holds girls and people of color back from pursuing the sciences. Back when she was just a cheerleader at Temple and working at Discover, she’d often point out to publishers the mistakes she found and would notice how they, thinking she was a scientist, would talk to her differently than she was used to. That drew her in further.
Heather A. Fischer, a senior researcher at Oregon State University’s STEM Research Center, says when students shy away from science, it makes them more intimidated by it as adults. Not all of them get the opportunity Cavalier did to see science in a different way. That’s where citizen science programs can fill the gap. “Cheerleaders are not normally what come to mind with you think about scientists, but by showing that cheerleaders have STEM careers, it shows kids that anyone can do science and STEM,” she says.
Aside from Project Squirrel, Cavalier is a big fan of Globe at Night. In this project, you’re taught how to look for constellations in the sky. The stars you cannot see indicate the amount of light pollution — which can affect everything from human sleep patterns to species migration to lightning bug mating rituals. User-generated light data helps scientists study these effects further.
For Cavalier, it’s a responsibility, a kind of community service. Think of what the world could look like if millions of amateur scientists shut off the TV for a few minutes and walked outside in search of the light.