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WISE program making science and engineering fun for women

A group of young women living in Elizabeth Waters Hall had a great time with broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts one recent Sunday afternoon. But these foods weren't the focus of a vegetarian dinner. Instead, they were at the heart of a game in which teams of four or five students had to categorize them into families and kingdoms.

Women test potato conductivity

A student tests the electrical conductivity of a potato as part of the first Science Olympiad, held Dec. 6 in Elizabeth Waters Hall, home of the learning community. Photo by Hannah Swacker (large image)

This activity was just one of several creative components of the first Science Olympiad, jointly sponsored by the residence hall and the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) learning community. Established five years ago, WISE creates a social network and common academic ground for about 100 undergraduate women who live together on two floors of Liz Waters. As part of the program, the women share discussion sections of core chemistry courses, which are required of virtually all science and engineering majors, and participate in a variety of social events, such as the Science Olympiad.

Open to all members of the residence hall, the Olympiad was one more way of encouraging women to consider careers in science, math and engineering, says resident hall manager Molly Deugaw. "For our first effort, it was a tremendous success. The students really liked the hands on problem solving activities, and the teaching assistants (TAs) were impressed with their creativity and problem solving skills."

Some of the activities included:


  • Building a battery out of lemons, pickles, potatoes, copper wire, water, salt and iron.


  • Using spaghetti, marshmallows and tape to construct an "earthquake resistant" object on top of a shoe box.


  • Solving a maze in which only prime numbers enabled the way out.


  • A discussion on how to survive if living by a volcano.

The final round, presented in a "Jeopardy"-style format, involved answering general science questions from the teaching assistants.

"We had positive feedback from both the participants and the TAs," says Deugaw, adding that the competition will return next year.

Overall, WISE has gotten off to a good start, according to organizers such as Caitlyn Allen, a plant pathology and women's studies professor. "This has been a small, low-profile program, but we've seen some very dramatic results. The social and structural support is the important part."

There are other values as well. For example, in 1997-98, WISE students had an average GPA of 3.39, while UW-Madison women overall averaged 2.98 and men averaged 2.88. In Chemistry 103 and 109, students in the WISE discussion section averaged a GPA of 3.55, compared to the class average of 2.71.

Allen says an interesting social network has developed entirely on its own. Beyond the 100 students in WISE, another 200 past residents remain active in the program socially and help newer students.

"This isn't something we planned for, but WISE students are acting as ambassadors for the program," says Allen.