Suggested Improvements to the UC Merced “Expanding Your Horizons” Event

This is an open letter to the Expanding Your Horizons network, and to the Women in Science and Engineering of UC Merced, in regards to the disappointing experience we had with the Expanding Your Horizons Conference for girls in junior and high school, offered at the UC Merced campus on Saturday, February 22, 2014, which was sufficiently poor that we decided to leave before the workshops had even started—even though we had pre-registered and paid for the event, and driven for an hour to arrive there, on time.

But first, I want to start by expressing my gratitude for your organizations, for the programs you offer, and for working to encourage girls and young women to enter fields in science and engineering. Women are clearly underrepresented in those fields, and I firmly support any effort made to close the gap between the current state of science engineering, and a more diverse population of scientists, engineers, and other workers in related fields.

And the fact that you are able to offer such events at the ridiculously low cost of $5 per participant (covering both a tee shirt and a lunch), is simply amazing, and I want to express my deep gratitude to your respective donors for making such a thing possible, as clearly that is not nearly sufficient to cover the costs of putting on a program such as this, and offering low entry costs makes your program accessible to girls of all income brackets.

My 7th-grade daughter, Joy, who turns 14 next week, has long been very interested in pursuing a career in entomology (bugs), or possibly a related field such as biological illustration (she is a gifted artist). Geeky, exuberant girls with a love for science and discovery tend to find today that they have trouble finding people, whether adults or peers, that can easily relate to them, or who can encourage (or even just abstain from discouraging) them in their interests and life goals, so both she and I were very excited to learn about this even taking place near to us.

Unfortunately, as I said, we found our immediate experience at the event to be so off-putting, that she elected for us to turn around and head back on the hour trek home (making some mood-restoring stops along the way). To be sure, I bear at least some responsibility for this, as some aspects of our experience would have been improved had I made a greater effort to contact your organizations to fill in some of the information gaps left by the event website and confirmation emails.

But I would definitely like to make both organizations aware of some suggestions for improvements to future program events, that I believe would have made for a much, much more positive experience for my daughter and myself. These suggestions are, ordered by our expectations of greatest improvement to students’ experience:

  • To strive harder to match participants with workshops suited to their expressed interests, or when this is not possible, to provide advance notification to that effect.
  • To be able to more quickly inform registrants who’ve received their name badges regarding what workshops they have been assigned.
  • To include better information (quantity, quality, and accuracy) about the program and its workshops and activities on the website. In particular, to more accurately describe how participants are matched to workshops, and to reflect what level of participation is permitted to young students’ parents and guardians.
  • To provide directions, signs, or maps, to the event location within the campus.
  • To better train and inform the staff about the program and its particulars, with particular stress on providing as overwhelmingly welcoming an environment as possible.

To communicate why I believe there are improvements to be made in these areas, I will give an outline of our experience.

I heard about the program through local news sources in the areas surrounding Merced. I found the local event website, but was disappointed by the fact that there were really only about three paragraphs of information about the event taking place, along with a list of topics that would be covered. I would very much have liked to find more details about subtopics covered within those broad subjects, or descriptions of what sorts of activities would be involved or included in those workshops. Ideally, bios about the workshop leaders would be nice too.

The website was not explicit about it, but seemed to me to indicate that parents/guardians could attend the workshops with their daughters (which I later learned was not the case). After further consideration of the website and the pre-registration process, I can see some signs that perhaps should have led me to suspect this, but I still feel justified in having interpreted the information on the website the way I did (further explanation some paragraphs below), and would appreciate it if your organizations would take care to be more explicit about this matter. Of course, I should also have verified my mistaken assumptions by explicitly contacting you.

When we arrived on the UC Merced campus, there were helpful signs clearly directing us where to find parking. However, there were no signs or staff within sight at the parking lot to give us any further direction as to where we should go on campus to find the event. Directions had been provided via an email link, but only to UC Merced itself, and not to any point within the campus.

So we charged into the campus for a while, deciding we were probably amongst dormitory apartments, and ended up circling back to the parking lot. At this point, we did encounter two staff members, who were stationed at the farthest point from the parking entry, and were not particularly visible from anywhere that timely arrivals were likely to be. We also would not have identified them as event staff, though they were wearing event tee shirts, as the coloring on the staff tee shirts makes it difficult to make out the design unless you are very close by.

They sent us in the right general direction, but without further signs or indicators we still got a bit lost and nearly entered an entirely different event (which turned out to be for martial arts practitioners).

When we did finally arrive at the event site, she got her name badge and a tee shirt. I had trouble determining how to pay for my own participation (as I expected to do), and they seemed to think the parent can participate, and enjoy the lunch, with just the child’s admission fee (which had been paid online). This seemed unlikely to me, so they said they’d check. But they never got back to me (probably overwhelmed with new registrant arrivals).

So I found someone else to ask, and was then informed that parents are not participants, and must leave the campus after dropping their daughter off. I replied that this contradicted what I’d understood from the website. I was then told that I could accompany her, but could not buy a lunch or tee shirt (which suited me fine).

I then wanted to determine which workshops she’d been assigned, so I could confirm that at least some portion of the day would be spent on subjects of interest to her. They could not immediately determine this information, despite the fact that color-coded dots had been placed on participants’ name badges to identify their group. They had to run and find someone with more information, who then gave them what they needed to look up which group she was in by what color she had, and determine which workshops she would participate in.

I feel it would have been much more helpful to have a large sign in the registration area, indicating which colors included which workshops—or much better, to notify pre-registered participants of their workshops as soon as this information was known.

We were dismayed to discover that none of the workshops she was assigned were in any way related to the interests she’d indicated on her pre-registration form online (Animals, Science, and Computer Science, though that last was really just in order to fill a thirmaked choice). Instead she was assigned to things related to earth mechanics, and design-and-architecture. We expressed our dissatisfaction and lack of interest in these subjects, and the cheery and somewhat dismissive response was, “well, that’s what you’re here for, to learn!”

Which is perhaps an acceptable perspective to take regarding girls who have not yet obtained an interest in science or engineering, or whose interest was still of a general nature, but is to my view, less helpful in nurturing the enthusiasm of a young girl who already has fairly solid ideas about what areas in science (specifically, and not so much engineering) she wants to pursue. We also felt it was a pretty dismissive, unwelcoming response.

To be sure, not greatly unwelcoming, but certainly not positively welcoming and encouraging. And please remember, much of the reason that organizations and events like this are necessary, is that the world is already a decidedly unwelcoming place for women in science, engineering, or technology. And as much as delivering disappointing news and the stress of dealing with hundreds of registrants (others of which must surely have had to be disappointed) is a part of handling events such as these, it seems crucial to me not only to go out of the way to avoid anything that might make a girl feel unwanted or unwelcome, or dismissed, but to strive to provide an overwhelmingly, even ridiculously, safe and welcoming haven for girls to foster their interest in technical fields.

I do not want to overstate the case, of course. While Joy did indicate later that she felt it was unfriendly, I don’t think that she felt actually unwanted or anything like that. Her decision to leave at that point was primarily due to the disconnect between the workshops to which she’d been assigned, and the science-related interests that she actually holds.

Naturally, we do completely understand that it isn’t always possible to closely match students with the interests they had indicated.However, the information we’d been given had clearly and explicitly stated that early arrival would improve the chances of getting into the desired workshops, whereas the programs had already been assigned to students well before anyone’s arrival, since they’d been marked on the students’ name badges before people could come to collect them. A more accurate description of that process would have been greatly appreciated.

And of course, given that these programs had in fact been determined ahead of time, an advance notice of her assigned program would have allowed us to make our decision on whether to participate before conducting an hour-long drive to reach the campus.

Regarding my mistaken impression that parents could participate in the program: this impression was gained mainly from the following sentence from the faqs page:

The student fee is $5 and the adult fee is $5

Now, having later re-examined the website, and finding an empty section on “adult workshops”, I suspect that this line exists because EYH may in fact have other events that do offer adult workshops, and this line is left-over from faqs used to describe such events. Further, I probably should have suspected something when, on being invited to pay for my student, I was not offered an option to pay for myself. I also later found a sentence elsewhere on the website that stated that parents that arrived too late to participate in campus tours, would be asked to sign the liability waiver and then leave the campus—that was not precisely my situation, since I had arrived before 8, but it would have hinted that parents do not participate.

It would have been quite a bit easier if the website had explicitly stated this information. The consistently repeated language on the website was that parents and guardians “do not have to” remain for the event, but there was no place that made it clear that they could not.

Again, please understand that I hold both of your organizations in high regard, and am excited about the work you are doing and have done. I understand that my situation may well be an isolated case (though I suspect that many participants and their parents experienced at least a few of the same issues, particularly in regards to lack of website information, and directions within the campus), and hope that the overall experience was a very positive one to the many other young girls who came to learn about science and technical fields. And I do hope you return to provide this excellent event again in the future, particularly if you choose to implement some of the suggested improvements that I’ve offered.

Sincere Regards,
Micah John Cowan.

3 thoughts on “Suggested Improvements to the UC Merced “Expanding Your Horizons” Event

  1. Micah Post author

    (Note, not an open letter because I want to draw a lot of attention, or to pretend any of this is more important than it is, but because I wanted to simultaneously share this with the organizations, and with a few friends, and to invite anyone with similar (or dissimilar) experiences to chime in, or to point out unreasonableness on my part, etc.—I don’t have a “following” to speak of, and am not trying to pretend (or attain) otherwise.)

  2. Heather Gibbons

    Thank you so much for the feedback! I commend you for the thorough discussion of the issues balanced with actual suggestions for improvement. It is refreshing in this internet age to receive balanced feedback intended to help, not just to rant. Thank you again.

    In reading your comments, I think you have valid concerns that can be remedied with relative ease. I am very sorry that your experience did not meet your expectations and that we were not clear about setting those expectations and meeting them at the event. I understand that the participant experience begins with the initial registration and continues until the end of the event.

    Before I address your specific concerns, I am going to preface them with what I intend to be an explanation and not an excuse. You pointed out the low cost of the event, but did you know that is made possible by the fact they are run entirely by volunteers – from deciding to hold a conference to organizing it to providing the experiences at the event? I say this as a way to acknowledge the commitment of those volunteers and to recognize that your experience indicates that we at the EYH Network Office are responsible to provide better support to our conferences and volunteers.

    With regard to the general customer service elements of your comments, I think the we can provide to the conferences better guidance on signage, greeting and way finding. With regard to your daughter and her interests, I agree that if the option is offered to provide preferences, honoring at least some of those preferences should be honored. The Network Office can help with this by working with the conferences to improve the technology we use for planning and registration as well as providing more training. Even if a girl has no previous experience with STEM, if she indicates interests, they should be considered.

    Finally, it seems that much of your experience could have been avoided by being more clear and explicit with regard to the public facing information provided to registrants. I think that comes down again to improving training and the registration tool we use as well.

    I tried to be concise, but I hope I have addressed your concerns. I assure you we take them seriously. I have dedicated my working life (20 years) to informal STEM engagement and I am committed to making sure we achieve our mission with distinction! I welcome further discussion.

    Heather Gibbons
    Expanding Your Horizons Network
    Inspiring girls to recognize their potential and pursue opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)

    1. Micah Post author

      Ms Gibbons, thank you very much for your reply. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to read what I wrote with such care, and to write such a considerate response.

      I absolutely agree that you addressed all of my concerns, and I cannot imagine a more perfect response I could have received.

      Thank you, your organization, and all the sponsors, donors, volunteers, and hosts, who make your so-vital program possible. I look forward to our next attempt to participate in the future!

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