Girls on Ice: A Mountaineering Adventure and Learning Experience

Girls on ice
Girls on ice

Every summer glaciologist Erin Pettit (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) leads a group of nine teenage girls into the North Cascade Mountains for twelve days to learn about science, glaciers, mountaineering, teamwork and themselves in a unique, tuition-free program called Girls on Ice. UAF graduate students Joanna Young, Marijke Habermann, and Barbara Truessel lead a parallel program in the Alaska Range.

Pettit, who founded Girls on Ice in 1999 while a graduate student at the University of Washington, says she was looking for a way to give back to her community.

“Before I went to graduate school, I lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years and volunteered for the Sierra Club taking inner city kids on day trips to the mountains and coast,” she says. “I saw how much positive impact being in and learning about natural environments had on them and began looking for a way to carry that experience forward once I was in graduate school.”

She started the program with no experience teaching high school kids or leading back country trips. But her own skills and confidence—not to mention an extensive support system—got the program off the ground.

Through partnerships with the North Cascade Institute and funding from individuals, the National Science Foundation, UAF, and the Alaska Climate Science Center, Girls on Ice has continued to grow and prosper.

Each fall the new field season is announced to teachers who encourage students to apply. Although GOI participants come primarily from United States high schools, international students are also eligible. To submit an application, interested girls must visit the application website and create an online account. They will be asked to answer a few questions and required to submit two letters of recommendation from at least one teacher and another mentor. Applications for the 2013 season are due February 1, 2013.

Pettit says that rather than choosing participants solely on their individual applications, she considers both how a girl might contribute to the group dynamic and how the experience might inspire her future.

“We want to build a diverse team so we look for variations in geographic, ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds to build a balanced group. Some may be very gung ho about science while others are less so, but have an equal enthusiasm for art. Some girls may have backcountry experience while others do not. We also try to balance outgoing and quieter personalities. With this type of diversity, they are more likely to learn from each other and act as peer mentors. Mostly we look for girls who are eager,” Pettit explains.

Selected participants are assigned to either the North Cascades group (open to girls worldwide) or the Alaska group (preferentially selected from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest) with the basic itinerary for each as follows:

  • Day 1: Meet the team
  • Day 2/3: Introduction and/or hike to basecamp
  • Day 3/4-8: Hike to basecamp, explore the glacier and surroundings
  • Day 9: Hike out
  • Day 10: Continue to explore the landscape and the experience through closure activities
  • Day 11: Head home

Although tuition has always been subsidized, Girls on Ice moved to a tuition-free format in 2006.

“I didn’t want finances to be an issue for anyone and really wanted to make the experience available to girls who would not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in this type of program,” says Pettit.

While girls and their families are asked to make a minimal contribution to equipment and clothing, most gear is available on loan through GOI. Similarly, families are asked to take care of flights, but “we emphasize to the family that we will make up the cost difference if there’s a problem,” says Pettit. “One girl sold eggs out of her backyard to raise money for her plane ticket. She didn’t quite get to the full amount but she showed us that she really wanted to be here and we helped make up the rest.”

The National Science Foundation has historically provided funding for instructor salaries and logistical arrangements, but Pettit says securing long-term funding remains a challenge. While Girls on Ice has many generous private donors, Pettit anticipates the need to eventually transfer program funding to entirely private sources – a huge job.

Instructors include Pettit along with an impressive group of women guides, scientists, graduate students, educators, and artists all focused on getting students making observations and formulating their own science questions. Pettit says the instructors rarely give lectures, but instead lead discussions through guided and probing questions.

“We try to emphasize process and science skills. Many students are afraid of asking ‘stupid questions’ so on one of the first days we ask the girls to spend ten minutes in silent observation with their journals. We ask them to think about how they would describe a glacier to their best friends and to write down any questions they might have about the glacier. This usually gets an interesting scientific discussion going,” Pettit says. “Some facts about glaciers will stick and some will float away. We want the girls to understand that we all have preconceived ideas – that we all see the world through our own particular lens and that lens is a valid one. What is key is to acknowledge our own perspective and then be open to seeing things in a new way. This is important not just for science, but for life.” —Marcy Davis

For more information about Girls on Ice, including donations and volunteering (fundraiser needed), contact Erin Pettit or visit the Girls on Ice website.