Finding their footing

Outdoor program for girls promotes STEM education, fellowship

By Adriana M. Chávez ’19

As a senior at Oñate High School in Las Cruces, Paula Macias wanted to accomplish something that was a little out of the ordinary for her.

She noticed flyers for the southern New Mexico and west Texas chapter of Girls in outdoor Adventure for Leadership and Science, or GALS, advertising an all-girls hiking trip in June 2019 in the Gila Wilderness. Macias, now a student at NMSU studying animal science, had never been hiking before. She worried about being the outsider of the group, since she was the only senior.

Luckily, the trip turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her to build her confidence, create lifelong bonds with the other girls in the group and explore her love of science.

“I had so much fun,” Macias says. “We all bonded because we were going through the same struggles, and it was good to be with other girls who also liked science, girls like me.”

The experience also led Macias to her mentor, Wiebke Boeing, Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology professor at NMSU. Boeing was inspired to start the regional chapter of GALS in 2018 after receiving an email from the program’s founders, a group of graduate students at Duke University. The program encourages students who are underrepresented in STEM fields to pursue science careers.

Support for the program is provided by NMSU, local businesses and community donations so that the program’s participants and their families don’t have to worry about purchasing special equipment like hiking shoes or backpacks.

“Seeing the majestic beauty of the Gila Wilderness through the eyes of teenagers who had never experienced anything similar is humbling and deeply touching, and forced me to pay attention to things I had stopped noticing,” Boeing says.

In June 2018 and June 2019, groups of girls from area high schools have backpacked up to five miles a day in the wilderness, often navigating difficult terrain. They learn how to purify water and cook on camp stoves.

The girls also collected data based on their scientific observations in the wild for a special presentation that takes place after the group returns to the NMSU campus from their weeklong trip. Presentation attendees include family members, friends and faculty.

Macias said during her hiking trip, her group encountered a dead horse in a stream. The group stopped to take samples from the stream to determine how the horse’s body affected the water’s pH.

Not only do the girls learn more about science and STEM fields, but they also learn about each other. Boeing says one feature of the trip is a nightly campfire where the girls sit around and anonymously discuss their biggest fears or life questions. A hat is passed around, and each girl writes down a fear or a question, then drops it into the hat for someone else to pick out and read.

“Some of them write about not having friends or not belonging,” Boeing says. “But the bonding and friendships that happen during the trip are just mind-blowing and amazing.”

The trips often have such an impact, participants like Macias decide to attend NMSU to study science-related majors. She also continues to keep in touch with the other girls in her hiking group via group chat.

“Dr. Boeing helped me a lot even after the program,” Macias says. “I like her and I trust her. She’s very passionate about what she does and helping people, and helping you become your better self.”

For more information about the GALS program, visit
aces.nmsu.edu/gals/
, or email Boeing at wboeing@nmsu.edu. To help support future trips, visit http://nmsu.life/supportGALS.