The team from the Buffalo PREP Program that competed in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2007 National Science Bowl did not win top honors, but it nonetheless made history as the first all-girl, all-Black team to make it to the prestigious academic event. Buffalo PREP is an intensive college-preparatory program run by the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y., that draws minority students from various high schools. The team’s members—Sylvie Bizimungu, Kerris Sease, Bianca Coleman, Andrea Finley and Olivia Cox—came together for the first time for the 2007 Bowl. They were among just 300 students from the initial 17,000 that made it to the Bowl, held in April in Washington, D.C. So unusual was their presence at the Bowl, that “they literally walked around Washington with a camera in their face,” Monyuette Coplin, Buffalo PREP’s director of the Graduate Prep program is quoted as saying. Coplin accompanied the team to Washington.
Development director Leslie Garcia adds, The paparazzi couldn’t believe how graceful these girls were under all that pressure.”
The National Science Bowl, won this year by Poudre High School in Fort Collins, Colo., is a competition among teams of high school students who attend science seminars and compete in a Jeopardy-style game show format to solve technical problems and answer questions in biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, earth science, general science and mathematics. The goal is to encourage student involvement in math and science activities, improve awareness of career options in science and technology and provide an avenue of enrichment and reward for academic science achievement. More than 100,000 students have competed in the annual Bowl since it began in 1991, which makes the girls from Buffalo wonder why it has taken so long for the first all-female team to make it this far.
“I was surprised that it hadn’t happened before,” says 17-year-old Sylvie Bizimungu, a refugee from Rwanda who arrived in Buffalo in 1997. The answer may lie somewhere in statistics. Science and math still tend to appeal more to males, who outnumber females in the National Science Bowl finals by four to one, according to the Energy Department. Women represent less than 10 percent of engineers and 32 percent of scientists in the U.S. workforce, according to MentorNet, an advocacy group that helps women enter science and engineering fields. Blacks represent about 3 percent of all scientists and engineers, according to the group.
Sease, 17, theorizes that fewer girls pursue science as a career because they are afraid of being socially isolated. “They think they’re going to be locked in a lab or something and it just doesn’t look appealing,” says Sease, who aspires to be a doctor or toxicologist. Bizimungu, who wants to be an electrical engineer, says girls may be intimidated by male-dominated fields, while Cox, who will major in nursing next year, says she has read that girls may shy away because “a smart boy is more appealing than a smart girl.” Several of the girls on the Buffalo PREP team have medical professionals or other scientists in the family whom they credit with inspiring them to excel beyond the statistics and stereotypes. Sease’s mother, for example, was an analytical chemist. Coleman is a doctor’s daughter. Coach Twiggs Seymore believes the girls’ athletic talents—most of them play sports—sharpened their competitive edge. “They’re very, very athletic, very competitive, very tenacious,” he says. “They want to set a goal, they want to go after that goal and accomplish that.”
The plans to be at the 2008 Bowl, “Some of the teams have been competing for years and some of the other students even have individual coaches. There’s an art to competing in these things. We know so much more about what to do for next year,” says Garcia.
By Carolyn Thompson