Graduate student Megan Blanchard developed a love of the wilderness—not in the mountains or desert, but in the urban environment of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
While growing up in the city, Blanchard participated in the Explorer’s Club of Pittsburgh where she learned about the joy, empowerment and camaraderie that can be found in remote and rugged landscapes. Through her early participation in the club, Blanchard learned climbing and mountaineering skills. That motivated her to share her wilderness experience and her passion for science.
Girls on Rock co-founders Mylène Jacquemart, left, and Megan Blanchard. Photos by Patrick Campbell/University of Colorado.
Wanting to share that sense of wonder and accomplishment, Blanchard co-founded Girls on Rock, a tuition-free wilderness excursion to help high school girls develop scientific and outdoor leadership skills in the heart of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
“We want to provide opportunities for girls who haven’t had this kind of opportunity,” Blanchard said. “The overarching goal is to give these girls the experience that will build their self-confidence and propel them forward in their lives.”
Blanchard is a chemical ecologist working on a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology at CU Boulder. She collects wildflower seeds in the mountains and studies how the seeds use toxic chemicals as a defense against being eaten by insects and animals.
For 12 days in June, the Girls on Rock team of women will take nine girls from underserved communities on an expedition into the Gore Range. With the support and guidance of two ecologists, a glaciologist and a professional mountain guide, participants will learn mountaineering and climbing skills, and work on science projects set against the backdrop of towering rock walls, mountain lakes and alpine meadows.
The 16- to 17-year-old girls will learn about the alpine environment, develop critical-thinking skills, write in journals and do art projects to help them process their new experiences. There will also be instruction on emotional intelligence and teamwork, as well as how to cook for a crew and take care of the campsite.
“While gaining comfort in the wilderness, they will be learning technical skills and field science, which is a big part of the program,” she said. “We want them to have hands-on experience and see themselves as part of the larger science community.”
Blanchard got the idea for Girls on Rock from Inspiring Girls Expeditions (IGE), an organization that leads free wilderness science education programs for high school girls. Girls on Rock has been adopted by the CIRES Education and Outreach program, which promotes the use and understanding of science.
What Blanchard would like for the girls to come away with at the end of their time in the wilderness is feeling amazed at what they accomplished during the trip and empowered to pursue whatever else they want to do in life.
“I’m so excited to meet the girls participating in the first expedition,” she said. “I’m looking forward to learning from them over the course of our 12 days together. I hope that at least some of the girls will be engaged by science and feel like they could become a scientist.”
To help support Girls on Rock as it strives to inspire girls to explore the wilderness and science, go the Girls on Rock crowdfunding page.