Gills Club at Mote Marine Laboratory
By Ryan G. Van Cleave
I confess—I already knew a bunch about Gills Club prior to writing this article. Why? Because I have two daughters (ages 10 and 13), who are EXACTLY their target demographic, and we’ve gone to a number of Gills Club events at Mote Marine Laboratory. And I’ve had as much fun at them as my daughters did.
“But what the heck IS Gills Club?” you might be asking. It’s the Atlantic White Shark Conservatory’s STEM-based education initiative that’s designed to connect girls (age 13 and younger) with female scientists from around the world, share knowledge, and inspire shark and ocean conservation. The Gills Club motto? “Smart about sharks.” In short, they seek to inspire the next generation of ocean advocates.
Mote was one of Gills Club’s first partners, and it makes sense—both are interested in sharks, marine life, environmental stewardship, education, and science. A perfect match! It didn’t hurt that one of Gills Club’s co-founders worked at Mote for about a year, too.
Elaina Todd, Mote’s Community Engagement Coordinator, is a big fan of Gills Club. “We had our first meeting in February 2014, just a short time before I began working at Mote,” she explains. These days, each meeting has as many as 40 girls attending. And the meetings are always exciting, she notes. This past July, they had a special guest speaker who wrote a book about Dr. Eugenie Clark, the founder of Mote. That author spoke at length about what it takes to be a scientist and a writer. The month before that? They held an outdoor meeting where kids played in the water, took a mangrove walk, and performed field sampling the bay.
One of the best things about Gills Club is that they’re happy to connect their members with women scientists who are always open to sharing their research and speaking with Gills Club groups. That network of women scientists numbers well over 100 and is growing. Two of these scientists are also featured in the monthly e-Newsletter and on the Gills Club Facebook group. It gives members unprecedented access to some of the top shark researchers in the world which—let’s face it—is pretty darn cool.
Todd explains, “Yes, Gills Club is about sharks, but in general, it’s about providing girls with as many opportunities as possible for them to be exposed to STEM and science. This is only going to increase their interest in science and show them possible future careers in those fields.” Getting women into science fields is an issue. Gills Club Co-founder Cynthia Wigren writes “It wouldn’t have occurred to me that the lack of females featured in Shark Week was an issue until I started a non-profit to fund shark research. At events, I met young girls who were being told by other kids that ‘only boys like sharks’ and being discouraged from following their passion. I realized that if your only experience with shark research/conservation is Shark Week—like it is for most kids—you may believe that shark science is a career only for men. The reality is that shark science is comprised of many women who live every week like it’s Shark Week. I wanted to find a way to connect the two groups, and so the Gills Club was born!”
Another challenge that both Todd and Gills Club faces is dispelling a few prevalent myths.
• Myth #1: Sharks want to eat us. They don’t. We’re not part of their natural diet. Despite movies like Jaws and the ridiculous Sharknado series, sharks do not have a vendetta against humans.
• Myth #2: Boys can’t participate. The truth is that boys CAN be part of Gills Club. While the club is focused on attracting girls to marine biology, the education and programming is fairly gender neutral. The only thing that’s truly girl-specific might be the pink Gills Club t-shirts, and let’s be honest—real men wear pink, too.
The 90-minute monthly meetings are always on Saturday afternoons and take place at Mote—most often at the Keating Marine Education Center. Things kick off with an introduction of the featured scientist of the day and the specific topic of the month. Then the kids are split into groups where they rotate through learning stations where they participate in hands-on activities focused on that month’s theme. If the featured scientist is a shark-tagging pro? The girls will simulate the type of work and research that particular scientist does. Todd says that about 25% of the time, they’re able to get the featured scientist to participate in person at the meeting, though if not, Skype or other distance options are sometimes an option.
One of the real benefits of being part of Gills Club, Todd points out, is how much confidence it can build. She explains how she’s watched girls who seemed skittish and quiet come again and again to Gills Club events and get excited and interested and active. Now, some of these girls are doing public shark advocacy at schools, which can entail speaking in front of groups!
Valerie Van Cleave, my thirteen-year-old daughter, really likes Gills Club. “Where else can you find out about the Goblin Shark?” she asks after reading about it in the monthly newsletter. “I mean, who’d ever think to look up information on this shark that has an elongated snout that might be used to find prey with electrical detection? How cool is that?”
Want to check things out for yourself? The fall 2017 schedule for Mote’s Gills Club meetings is:
• September 16
• October 14
• November 18
• December 16
Each event is posted on Mote’s event calendar during the first week of the month. It’s free to attend, though do take the time to register online so they have an accurate head count and can plan accordingly to ensure they have enough required materials for that meeting’s activities.
“Talking about Gills Club always gets me so worked up,” says Todd, who is as excited to be part of this as the girls attending the meetings are. “It’s such a GREAT program!” So take a child, grandchild, or neighbor this fall and discover what all the excitement’s about. And if your kid(s) are a bit older than the Gills Club target range (up to 13), don’t worry—Mote is looking to create an advanced Gills Club that caters to a middle school demographic, too.