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Science and cheerleading are two disciplines that usually aren’t associated with each other. But Darlene Cavalier, a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader who holds a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, found common ground for her two interests in 2008 when she combined her cheerleading experience with a passion for science and founded ScienceCheerleader.com.
Along with the website, Cavalier formed the Science Cheerleaders, a team of more than 175 current and former professional cheerleaders who are pursuing careers as scientists and engineers. The Science Cheerleaders connect with groups who have traditionally been underrepresented in jobs related to science and technology. At appearances and events across the nation, the Science Cheerleaders encourage children to consider careers in the sciences and challenge adults to develop their curiosity about science by volunteering for community science projects. Cavalier’s Science Cheerleaders use humor to overturn stereotypes about scientists, mathematicians and engineers.
Recognizing the importance of developing the nation’s science and technology workforce, Cavalier formed the Science Cheerleaders to target women and minorities who are absent from the U.S. STEM workforce. By tapping into one of the interests of many young girls (an estimated 3 to 4 million girls in the U.S. are involved in cheerleading), Cavalier is providing role models who can increase girls’ self-confidence about pursuing careers in scientific and technical fields.
Cavalier is an advocate for science literacy who has made it her mission to expand the public’s interest in science and to involve “normal” people in the shaping of national science policy. The focus of her graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania was the role of citizens in science. Besides ScienceCheerleader.com, she is also the founder ofScienceForCitizens.net. This website serves as an online portal that connects volunteer science opportunities with “citizen scientists” who are eager to volunteer.
Prior to forming Science Cheerleaders, Cavalier was an executive with Walt Disney Publishing, then moved over to Discover Magazine, where she worked for more than a decade. She recently collaborated with the National Science Foundation, the NFL and NBC Sports to produce the Science of NFL Football documentary series.
After graduating from college, Cavalier had been quiet about her former life as a professional cheerleader, worried that the cheerleader stereotype would cause some people to view her as frivolous. That changed when the father of one of her children’s classmates suggested that she leverage her cheerleading experience to promote science literacy. She began her website as a forum for the discussion of science issues and a tool to enhance citizen involvement in scientific research. One of her long-term goals to re-establish a federal Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Despite the critical role that technology plays in the global economy, the OTA was defunded by Congress in 1995 due to lack of public interest.
The Science Cheerleaders are not without controversy. Critics include some feminists and scientists who believe that the image of the cheerleader is in conflict with the serious nature of science. Cavalier is not out to trivialize science, but she would like to dispel the geeky stereotype of scientists. As the mother of four, she doesn’t want to wait for her children’s generation to change the world. Speaking to Philadelphia’s Keystone Edge online magazine, Cavalier says she doesn’t mind taking the heat if it helps to change cultural perceptions about science. “You can break these two stereotypes; you can blend these two worlds,” she says.