7. SYWIG Day shows girls the sweet side of geospatial science

When you take a bite of a chocolate bar, you’re tasting ingredients from all over the world; cacao from Cote d’Ivoire, sugar from Brazil, and milk from the United States.The geography of food: where it grows, why it grows there, and what kind of people are involved in the production process provided a tasty lesson for 50 middle school girls from Penns Valley, Moshannon Valley, and Philipsburg-Osceola school districts who came to the annual Supporting Young Women in Geography (SYWIG) Day at Penn State on April 25, 2014.  SYWIG Day is sponsored by the student group, Supporting Women in Geography (SWIG).


map activity

Working in small groups, middle school girls used maps to trace the supply chain and locate the sourcesof the ingredients for chocolate: corn syrup, cacao, sugar, milk. Photo by Angela Rogers.



“I am very interested in education and geography, in general, and this activity is the perfect combination of my two passions. I would love to teach geography or earth science at the secondary education level someday,” said SYWIG Day planning committee chair, Amy Thissell (M.S. ’14)

“Through SYWIG Day, we aim to forge connections with the community and bring the Department of Geography into conversation with middle-school girls, while also demonstrating what geographers do. SYWIG Day provides a quick introduction to the possibilities of a university education, specifically in geography, and ways in which the perceived and actual barriers posed by gender can be overcome in a field traditionally associated with men,” explained doctoral student Aparna Parikh.

SYWIG Day consisted of several activities: First, Penn State geography professors Lorraine Dowler, Petra Tschakert, and Cynthia Brewer gave a brief introduction.

“There is an expression ‘you have to see it to be it’ that women firefighters use when they are recruiting women into the fire service. It is similar in terms of letting young women know that there are women who work in all areas of geography. It is important to state that men play a very important part of the day, but the idea is if young women can see that women not only are involved in geography but also do really exciting things, then they will consider geography as a possible career. I talked about how interesting it is for me to study women astronauts, women firefighters, and women in the military, and how humbled I am to take their stories and try to tell them to a wider audience,” Dowler explained.

Next, girls learned about the geography of chocolate. Working in small groups, they used maps to trace the supply chain and locate the sources of the ingredients. And, of course, there was a sweet payoff. “We gave out miniature chocolate bars to make the connection between a somewhat abstract concept and a real product. Plus it’s a nice way to reward the girls’ efforts,” said Thissell.

The girls also learned about biomes— contiguous areas with similar climatic conditions—also known as ecosystems, what kinds of food grow in each biome, and how soil characteristics and climate support cultivation of different types of food.

The day concluded with a potluck lunch, during which the girls learned about the geographic origins of the food. “Our international students brought foods from their home countries, and I recently completed fieldwork in Brazil, so I made Brazilian chocolate truffles called ‘Brigadeiros’ and a black bean dish from Venezuela,” Thissell said.

“Lunch was the best part of SYWIG Day because we ordered and made dishes from all over the world and the girls clearly had a great time trying the new cuisines,” said doctoral student Adrienne Tucker. “This activity also incorporated the efforts of multiple graduate students, and it was nice to be able to see how supportive our department is of this event.”

Not only the middle school girls, but also the graduate students benefitted from the event.
“My take-away: It is important to form connections with different age groups, and learning happens both ways. I learned from the middle-school girls possibly as much as they learned,” Parikh said.

SWIG’s mission is to promote the participation of women in the discipline of geography and to empower women who are pursuing academic and professional careers in geography. SYWIG Day was also supported in part by a grant from the Penn State Commission for Women.