tumblr_mn8b8sLRb61rkz363o1_1280For these girls, sharks aren’t the frightful monsters depicted in the movie, Jaws. They are endlessly fascinating creatures that actually need protection from humans.

Sharks also are the catalyst for what can become scientific careers in fields where women are a decided minority, explains Marianne Long, education director of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy in Chatham.

All this drives the Gills Club, which launched three years ago as a partnership between the conservancy and the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster, where they meet monthly.

With the motto “Smart About Sharks,” Gills Club members – girls 13 and younger- work closely with women scientists not only to learn about these creatures whose numbers are growing in the waters off Cape Cod, but also to be motivated by true role models and maybe become scientists themselves.

At their meetings at the museum each month, Gills Club members are provided with tools to educate their peers about sharks. These include monthly newsletters and hands-on learning opportunities.

lindsay (1)“We want this group to jump-start girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, boosting their chances of entering careers in science,” said Long.

The club began when several female scientists were working locally here on Cape Cod had the chance to meet a group of girls there who dreamed of becoming scientists themselves.

“Until the girls met these women, the girls felt constantly on the defensive at school. They were made fun of for wearing shark clothing and having shark backpacks, being told that sharks are for boys,  not girls,” said Long. “But, they saw first hand that this isn’t true.”

It’s unfortunately a stereotype somewhat reinforced by actual numbers. While women make up 46 percent of the total U.S. workforce, they represent only 24 percent of the fields including Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), according to the National Science Foundation.

What started with about five girls now has grown to more than 30, representing school districts ranging from Harwich to Plymouth. The goal is to have every school on Cape Cod represented, said Long.

In the meantime, the Gills Club occupies a big part of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s web site, and – along with a dynamic social media network – invites girls everywhere on the Cape and beyond to get engaged.

Skerry+photo+2 (1)“We want to help motivate current members and many other girls to become female biologists, to show them that anyone can work in that field and conserve sharks, to show them how they can follow their dreams,” Long explained.

Today, each newsletter published monthly features two female biologists, their research, how they got interested in sharks, and the internships or work experiences that helped them grow in their field. They all are part of the Gills Club Science Team, which numbers more than 80, such as Dr. Shannon Corrigan of the College of Charleston, Dr. Tricia Meredith of Miami University, Dr. Michelle Heuple of James Cook University. A full roster of these women are visible every day at the Gills Club online (http://www.gillsclub.org/scienceteam).

“If you put in the time, the effort, and the dedication, you can very well find yourself on this list, inspiring the next generation of researchers,” the Gills Club members are told.

The Gills Club has members from 43 states and 18 countries, creating a network of more than 1,200 girls, all able to leverage the leverage and talents of the women scientists participating now across the globe – not only through the events they attend, but sometimes in boats alongside professionals who are observing and tagging sharks.

“The growth of our Gills Club on Cape Cod is the result of our partnership with the Museum of Natural History and other education centers across the country,” said Long. “It has opened up its space and time to the girls every month to participate in different hands-on activities and research projects, while meeting our scientists to explore many different science and technology concepts.

Gills+in+Cali+(2) (1)Beyond the Gills Club, the museum also hosts the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s Shark Week KidSummer Program, open to both girls and boys between the ages of 7 to 12. Two one-week sessions introduce youth to shark biology through hands-on activities, outdoor experiences, and traditional shark camp games. Participants engage in Dogfish Shark dissection, mock tagging demonstrations, shark art creations and shark fossil identification, among other classes.

Meanwhile, year round once a month, the Gills Club continues to thrive.

i“What they are learning now is inspiring Gills to use the standards taught in their classrooms and see how it is applied in real-world careers. It empowers them to share what they learn with others and begin their career working in shark conservation at any age.

Gills Club events are now taking place in locations as far away as Seattle, Baltimore and Florida,” she noted. “The activities and labs are  tangible and can be replicated at other host sites, but all started at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History.”