'Go, Science!' Science and cheerleading are subjects rarely spoken in the same sentence. But a surprising group of cheerleaders are on a mission to make science appealing to more young people. Host Allison Keyes speaks with the group's founder, Darlene Cavalier and Jennifer Hill, a Science Cheerleader and engineer.
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'Go, Science!'

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'Go, Science!'

'Go, Science!'

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When most people think of professional cheerleaders, they don't necessarily think of the women tossing their uniforms for a spiffy white lab coat. But there's a group of them that can shake their pom-poms at games and shake up the science world at work.

(Soundbite of cheer)

Unidentified Group: We're busting, we're busting, we're busting down the stereotype. We're busting, we're busting, we're busting down the stereotype. Go science.

KEYES Those are the ladies of Science Cheerleader, performing at a USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. last month.

Science Cheerleader began as a blog and now is an organization that aims to build interest and science among adults and children. Dozens of current and former professional cheerleaders who also have a background in science are working together to spread the word that pom-poms and microscopes can go together.

Darlene Cavalier is founder of Science Cheerleader. She's a former cheerleader for the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team and now works for Discover magazine. Darlene joins us from Philadelphia.

And Jennifer Hill is a choreographer and former cheerleader for the Tennessee Titans football team. She joins us from Nashville. Welcome, ladies.

Ms. DARLENE CAVALIER (Founder, Science Cheerleader): Thanks for having us.

Ms. JENNIFER HILL (Choreographer): Thanks, Michel.

KEYES: Darlene, what made you think of starting this? And what are you hoping to accomplish?

Ms. CAVALIER: The original goals for Science Cheerleader are actually the same. It's just evolved into a much more entertaining public face here. So the original goals for Science Cheerleader, the blog, were to increase adult science literacy - and I'm going to sound a little wonky here - get more people to do science through what's called citizen science activities, actually volunteering to help researchers accomplish specific tasks. And also to then kind of harness that group and get them more involved and engaged in federal science policy discussions.

KEYES: Citizen scientist?

Ms. CAVALIER: Citizen scientists, that's a great group. So that particular effort has spawned its own business called ScienceforCitizens.net and it's a site that matches regular people up with real science projects that they can do.

KEYES: Jennifer, which came first, your love of cheerleading or your love of science?

Ms. HILL: That's really a hard question. I'm sorry, I can't say which one came first because as a young child, I was working with my father on everything that he did around the house. My father has an electrical engineering degree. So I was like daddy's little girl. He had me fixing on things in the house whether it be appliances or on the car, musical instruments.

So, at a young age, you know, I was just involved in a lot of mechanical aspects and just solving problems. And, also, at a young age, I was into dance. So I've been dancing and I've been fixing on things my whole life. So, I'm sorry, I can't tell you which one came first because it goes hand in hand.

KEYES: I've got to ask you both this question. And, first you, Jennifer, then Darlene. You guys have got to catch a lot of drama from both sides. I figure the scientists who still think in 2010 that women have no business in their field and cheerleaders who look at you crazy for being into science. Jennifer?

Ms. HILL: Oh, absolutely. It's funny because, like you say it, on either side you've got people doing double looks and double takes, like, excuse me, what?

And so, like, from a cheerleader's standpoint, a lot of girls, you know, the normal stereotype is that cheerleaders only want to be, like, actors and dancers and things of that sort, something in the entertainment industry. And so when they see someone like me that, you know, I love to do those type of things but, also, my passion is for science and engineering. And I really want to go as far as I possibly can in corporate America, you know, in engineering right now.

And they're like, what's going on? Why do you want to do that? And, you know, I don't really get a negative connotation but, really, I kind of turn the tables around and give them more options to look into. You know, I've had a lot of young ladies that started out at 18 in professional cheerleading.

And, you know, initially they wanted to be an actress and now they're going to school, getting their, you know, their degrees and furthering their education and getting their MBAs and getting into any industry or field that they, you know, want to that they may not have initially.

KEYES: So, Darlene, have you been running into the same kind of thing? Youre at Discover magazine.

Ms. CAVALIER: Yes, I do. By and large the public has been incredibly receptive and very enthusiastic about this idea of kind of challenging stereotypes and getting young women to consider careers in science and technology. But every so often there are, you know, there are naysayers who, frankly, if you don't like cheerleaders, you're not going to like this campaign. There's nothing we can do to make you like cheerleaders.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CAVALIER: And the beauty of this campaign, which, you know, is surprising to me, is the level of complexity. So while it seems so simple and fluffy, oh, isn't that neat, there's a bunch of cheerleaders cheering for science. Then you start to find out that they are scientists and engineers cheering for science and that becomes the first layer where people start to dig deeper.

And some people feel that this is a campaign that strives to change the stereotypes of cheerleaders, and that's fine - or change the stereotypes of scientists, and that's a different perspective.

All in all, though, it is about empowering young women to realize that they can follow both of these dreams and the fact that there are 1.5 million little cheerleaders out there, this has the potential to be a very effective campaign in enlightening them and opening up doors that they may not have seen as viable to them.

So, one of the groups I should mention are the moms of these little girls. We witnessed this firsthand at the USA Science and Engineering Festival.

KEYES: I'm glad you talked about that because I was going to ask you about it.

Ms. CAVALIER: That was pretty remarkable to see the conversion of moms, really maybe looking a little skeptical at these women walking around in these outfits at a science festival and then one by one coming up after their daughters had, you know, had a chance to interact with somebody like Jennifer and to say, thank you so much, because she just only talks about growing up to be a cheerleader. First of all, I didn't even know there were such things as paid cheerleaders.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CAVALIER: But, secondly, for Jennifer to be able to speak to, you know, a five-year-old and say, yeah, you know, I was a cheerleader, this is what I did, do you like my pom-poms? Well, guess what else I do? I help build cars. Yeah, I love it. It's really cool.

KEYES: Let me jump in here for a second. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes and we're talking about the Science Cheerleader project. Our guests are Darlene Cavalier, the group's founder, and Jennifer Hill, a professional engineer. She's also a choreographer and a former cheerleader for the Tennessee Titans football team.

Jennifer, let me ask you, you're African-American and I think people of color and women are both kind of underrepresented in the scientific fields. Do you feel like you have a special mission to be a role model here?

Ms. HILL: Oh, absolutely. I do have a special mission. A lot of, you know, young inner city youth of different ethnicities, they come from a place where they feel like they don't know what they can do, or the sky is not the limit. And, you know, it's really good when they see someone like me just from different - from a different background or from a similar background as them, and just delving into these two different industries, whether it be the entertainment aspect of it or the science aspect of it.

And it just - you know, you could just see, like, in their eyes that they're like, oh my goodness, look, I can be this person as well. So, I mean, it's just really fulfilling to be able to just spend time with the kids and just let them know, hey, you know, this is something that you can do as well.

KEYES: Darlene, in the very short time we have left, talk to me a little bit about what's next for Science Cheerleader. How many are in the group right now? And what kind of outreach do you guys have planned?

Ms. CAVALIER: Yeah, it's the first time that we performed, was last month in Washington. So, 11 of the science cheerleaders. I put out a call, 11 responded. We had support from Burroughs Wellcome Fun to make that happen. And we're entertaining a lot of invitations to be everywhere to do these performances.

We have more than 50, by the way, science cheerleaders that are working with us. And they're in almost every major city. And I should add, that's from the NFL. I haven't even touched the NBA yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: From the NFL alone?

Ms. CAVALIER: NBA, that's my group.

KEYES: All right, who's smarter, NFL, NBA? No, I'm kidding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Pom-pom fight. No.

Ms. CAVALIER: Well, there's a reality show in that somewhere, I think.

KEYES: I know, right?

Ms. CAVALIER: Oh yeah. So we want to be able to sort of tap the call when we get a request to be able to say, you know, hey San Francisco, there's a science festival happening. And then those kids in those schools need to hear from you and make it pretty simple to do that.

And, again, we're also developing a full-fledged website so that little boys, too. They can come to the site and say, well, my favorite team happens to be the Tennessee Titans, let's see what Science Cheerleaders are on that team, making it much more easy for them to navigate and engage with the Science Cheerleaders.

KEYES: Darlene Cavalier is the founder of Science Cheerleader. She joined us from Philadelphia. And Jennifer Hill is a professional engineer who is also a choreographer and a former cheerleader for the Tennessee Titans football team. She joined us from Nashville. Thank you ladies, both.

Ms. CAVALIER: Thank you.

Ms. HILL: Thank you.

KEYES: To see the Science Cheerleader video, please check out our website. Just go to npr.org and select TELL ME MORE on the program page.

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