(INTERVIEW) Meet Science Cheerleader Darlene Cavalier

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1 2 3 4 DO YOU KNOW WHAT A LEPTON'S FOR?

What about quarks? Nuclear fusion? How about the Theory of Relativity? If all this science jargon sounds like, well, science jargon, it’s time you got a Brain Makeover. And who better to help boost your science self-esteem than a squad of Science Cheerleaders, a group of professional cheerleaders promoting science literacy one cheer at a time.

The professional cheerleaders in this video aren’t just rooting for science, they’re practicing it. That’s right — scientist cheerleaders, or cheerleading scientists if you prefer. Don’t normally picture aerospace engineers with pompoms and molecular biologists shouting cheers? Well, you’re about to.

The Science Cheerleaders are a side project of ScienceCheerleader.com, a blog founded by Darlene Cavalier.

I had the privilege of speaking with Darlene about the blog and the Science Cheerleaders. Darlene spoke about the success, the challenges, and how she herself was initially a skeptic.

Before the formation of the actual Science Cheerleaders, there was Science Cheerleader, the blog. Darlene’s passion about finding a voice for the science citizen and the public’s position in science fueled both her graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and the creation of the site. Darlene spoke about the three initial goals of ScienceCheerleader.com:

One was to increase adult science literacy. Another was to really enable more members of the regular public to get involved in doing science activity. And then we really wanted to focus the power of citizen scientists…to push for a mechanism...that would allow for participatory technology assessment…and ultimately more inclusiveness in technology assessment discussions.

With the help of Professor James Trefil of George Mason University, Darlene was then able to fuse her enthusiasm about science with the enthusiasm she gained during her time as a professional cheerleader for the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team.

Professor Trefi … has a book called Why Science? and [another book entitled] Science Matters. They’re both geared towards letting other people in academia better understand why more adults should be science literate and what that means for them.

He took it even 10 steps further—18 steps further saying “Here’s what it means to be science literate. Here’s why it’s important … And here’s 18 things you should know.” … Most people don’t take risks like that—they don’t want to be criticized by other people for leaving things out certain points. I loved his approach and frankly I understood it. So I met with him and I said, “What do you think of making ... those 18 concepts more appealing to a much wider audience?”

And from there, The Science Cheerleaders were born. Darlene called on her old squad from the 76ers to help her, and Professor Trefil out with their first project: Brain Makeover (linked at top). Brain Makeover consists of various videos showing one of the 76ers cheerleaders reciting one of Professor Trefil’s 18 facts as a cheer. Below the video, more information on the fact is given to help you better under each concept. After you’ve learned all 18 facts, you can test your knowledge with the quiz. (Can you pass with an 80%?)

The Brain Makeover and the Science Cheerleaders were definitely a hit, getting widespread Internet coverage as well as being featured on FOX news. While the overall response was very positive, Darlene did face some harsh criticism.

A big part of it for me is watching how people react to better understand how the project will evolve. A perfect example is that a lot of people loved [the Brain Makeover] because it was risky, and there were people who didn’t like it, who were totally offended — not so much that the women were in cheerleading outfits, but that these women didn’t have any kind of science background whatsoever. So, I took that to heart and decided to focus some more energy on really working with professional cheerleaders who are scientists and engineers, and it was a great route.

For those who think science-practicing professional cheerleaders are far and few between, think again. ScienceCheerleader.com has interviewed dozens of women who work in science fields AND cheer for professional sports teams across the country. As Darlene puts it:

They’re incredibly articulate, they’re passionate — it’s their life. They’re all just volunteering … So it’s genuine and it’s authentic.

Darlene spoke about being able to identify with these women and their struggle with stereotypes.

I absolutely can relate to them because almost every single one of them … have a feeling in their lives where they’re living in two different worlds. By day, I was one person in a professional setting … and by night, I was having the time of my life cheering for the Philadelphia 76ers with Charles Barkley.

Darlene said this struggle felt reminiscent of that middle school age — a pivotal time, especially for girls, when they feel like they have to make either-or choices. Cheerleading or science. Being popular or smart. What ScienceCheerleader.com works to show and the Science Cheerleaders embody is the ability to do both. While the Science Cheerleaders was not initially geared towards a younger demographic, the program definitely empowers young girls to embrace the things they love and pursue the things they enjoy — especially if that thing is science.

I was a skeptic that much could be done to change the way kids, especially girls, start to think about science, technology and sciences. I had to become a believer, and the only way I would become a believer is to witness it.

Darlene started believing after receiving encouraging emails from moms thankful for the cheerleaders’ interviews on the site — interviews gave their cheerleading, science-loving daughters someone to identify with.

We do it all the time with sports people and rock stars and other celebrities; why wouldn’t we do it with female role models that are real?

The cheerleaders participated in the U.S.A. Science and Engineering Festival in Washington DC in late October — their first performance and also Darlene’s first meeting with the women. That first performance along with previous positive feedback caused a moment of realization in Darlene.

It was reading the moms’ emails. It was being down in Washington DC [for the festival] and watching these girls — the littlest girls — come up and ask for the cheerleaders’ autographs, standing in line, shaking their pompoms, doing all these cheers.

I actually wanted to cry looking at them thinking, “This is unreal — I can’t believe this is happening.”

Then watching these interactions … and listening to their dialogue — I never coached the women on what to say. It didn’t hurt that the people who answered the call to participate in [the U.S.A. Science and Engineering Festival] — and it wasn’t by design — but 4 of them are minorities. So, just watching these interactions, I think this is unbelievably empowering for that little girl and as well for the cheerleader.

What’s next for the Science Cheerleaders? More in-person performances and more tactics to help make science more attainable to adults and more approachable for kids.

I just wanted this to be more of a social experiment. We didn’t set the expectation too high. It was more of a fun thing: Come watch the Science Cheerleaders, look at how they’re challenging stereotypes.

Now I’m totally bought into the concept. We have a very real opportunity shape the minds of … a million and a half little cheerleaders in the United States. I do want to spend a lot more time laying out a very clear and concise plan so that it can be scaled out … to make sure we stay true to our message.

What started as a side project is cheering its way into the minds of budding scientists and the hearts of inspired generations. The Science Cheerleaders appeal to a cross-generational demographic, fighting stereotypes and science literacy with pompoms in hand.

Big thanks to Darlene Cavalier for her time and thoughts. Make sure to visit the Science Cheerleader site to keep updated about the Science Cheerleaders and their future performances and the other projects of ScienceCheerleader.com.

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