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QUESTION:
I am a retired educator (37 years) now engaged in staff development and teacher training in the areas of science, math and technology.  My research shows that we lose most of our girls in these fields between 4th and 8th grades.  Women are a small minority in these fields.  What would you recommend I tell or share with other educators to help them understand their roles and begin to change these statistics?

ANSWERS from:

¨  Michelle Mock on 7 January 2003
¨
  Deidre LaClair on 13 January 2003
¨
  Steven Dworetzky on 21 January 2003
¨
  Wendy Wooten on 21 January 2003
¨
  Stephanie Wong on 25 January 2003
¨  Evelyn Torres-Rangel on 14 February 2003

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ANSWER from Michelle Mock on 7 January 2003:
I have my own opinions based on my own experience.  Girls in 3rd through 6th grades are really interested in math, science and technology.  Something starts happening in middle school and we start "losing" girls.  Part of it is how we, educators in particular and society in general, deal with teenage girls.  Another big "something" is hormones.  When the hormones start to kick in, it can be really hard to teach girls (or boys) anything.  Girls don't like to seem smarter than the boys.  It's not cool to be a "nerd" or a "geek", especially if one is interested in attention from the opposite sex.  Girls who demonstrate high interest and ability in science and math often find themselves isolated from their peers (girls and boys)!

Much of this is a normal part of adolescence and there really isn't much we can do about it.  Having special programs for girls (or all girls schools) which allow them to experience math, science and/or technology without competing with the boys is okay for some girls and may help in some cases.  However, I am opposed to putting too much emphasis on segregation within co-ed settings.  I think girls need to learn how to believe in themselves and hold their own within the confines of their co-educational classrooms.  They need to know it is okay to be "nerd" or a "geek" and embrace the labels with a sense of humor and confidence.

Girls who ARE interested in science in math through middle and high school will often tell you that they enjoy science and math and for most of them, the interest was nurtured when they were in elementary school.

I believe that teachers at all levels need to believe in the capabilities of all their students.  We need to inspire girls (and boys too) in the elementary years.  Give them opportunities to get hooked on the wonders of science, math and technology.  Let them dream big dreams of becoming whatever they want to be.  It's perfectly okay for a girl to want to be both an actress or model AND an engineer or scientist.  Let them know it is okay to change their mind about a possible career.

It is also perfectly okay for an elementary teacher not to know everything!  Many teachers at the elementary level do not have strong science and math backgrounds.  Often when it comes to science and math, they will teach only what is in the textbook because they don't have the answers for questions that are beyond the text.  Elementary school teachers should believe in their own abilities and give their students the confidence to discover things beyond the classroom.  "Not knowing" can be empowering when we tell our students, "I don't know, let's find out!"

We can inspire children in the elementary years and plant the seeds that let them believe they can be successful in math, science and technology fields.  The seeds may lie dormant for a while as children negotiate the teen years, but as they mature, those seeds will sprout and interest will bloom again.

I like to think of it as nurturing little acorns so they may one day become mighty oaks... reaching for the sky.

Michelle Mock
Educator
Southern California

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ANSWER from Deidre LaClair on 13 January 2003:
I think it is important that we encourage young girls to think about science before the 4th grade, and then get them seriously involved with science between 4th and 12th grade.  It is very easy for girls (or boys) to look at science as being too difficult, so they should be shown that though difficult as it may seem, science can be a truly rewarding and exciting experience.  Also, I think schools place too much emphasis on one aspect of sciences/math, usually biology.  There aren't enough practical applications of the sciences (in all their different forms, biology, geology, chemistry, astronomy, etc.).  Students, and especially young women need to know that what they are learning will apply to them as they get older.  In summary, get them interested early in life and keep them interested with practical applications.

Deidre LaClair
Geology Student
Michigan, USA

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ANSWER from Steven Dworetzky on 21 January 2003:
Teachers, by their words, motions and all body language influence students more than anyone can measure.  A mere smile to a student at the end of a project can sometimes affect the child's attitude more than a grade.  A word of encouragement, a comment about how much they admire someone already in the field of study, a reference to all the successes of women will start a child thinking about their future.  Newspaper articles that are read to the class, guest speakers who are successful in their field, books carefully placed around the room, a weekly person to admire who is discussed for only 5 minutes are all good methods of introducing students to women in the field.  The teacher, above all, needs to believe themselves or anything they say will be ignored.  They should encourage all the efforts, of all students, whether successful or not, so that students understand that a non-success is not a failure but an opportunity to try something else.

Steven Dworetzky
Educator
Los Angeles

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ANSWER from Wendy Wooten on 21 January 2003:
My interest in math and science was stimulated by teachers who made the subject exciting and intriguing.  I still remember a 4th grade math exercise where all students were asked to bring in a can - any size, such as a large coffee can or a small juice can, etc.  We were learning about measurements such as circumference and diameter, and had learned long division.  The teacher had each of us measure the circumference and diameter of our can, and then do long division to divide the circumference by the diameter to get an answer with a few decimal places.  We posted our results on the board in a chart with columns of "circumference," "diameter," and "circumference/diameter."  I was certain that the teacher had performed a magic trick when we saw that, no matter what size our can was, we all got the same quotient.  I also remember my science teacher in 7th grade who had us make electromagnets, showing how electricity can produce magnetism.  When he had a coil of wire into which a magnet was inserted and he touched the ends of the wire to a battery, the coil jumped as if he had placed two opposite poles or two like poles of magnets together, depending on the polarity of the battery, again showing how electricity produced magentism.  Then when he had a coil of wire hooked to a galvanometer and inserted and retracted a magnet in the coil, the needle deflected, I was amazed to learn that the converse could occur, that magnetism could produce electricty.  I believe the teacher was trying to present the concepts in a way that allowed us to discover the relationships and phenomena.

I think the style of delivery of the material is of greatest importance in exciting and stimulating the students.  I also think that challenging the students to think creatively through projects or hands-on activities are the most engaging assignments.  I have tried to employ these techniques in my teaching, and have found them to be quite successful in catching the attention of all students.

Wendy Wooten
Science Teacher
California

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ANSWER from Stephanie Wong on 25 January 2003:
I'd like to give you a description from what I see as a female student who has always been interested in science and engineering, and studying in what would definitely be called a "male-dominated" field.

I must say that I have largely "skipped" the girl-science dilemma.  I have been interested in science since I was little, and have been determined to become a scientist.  As far as being female, I personally have not given much thought about being in a male-dominated field.  If I want to do something, I want to be the best, and if I beat all the girls AND the boys, then my day has been made!

Although not in my personal experience, I am sure many girls get turned off by the middle-aged-man-in-a-labcoat descriptor.  In western society, it may appear that women are (or almost) equals.  But words say little.  One can watch a few minutes of television and see how our society treats women.  Our culture allows for women in science in theory, but it certainly does not popularize it in practice.  We still consider girls to be inferior to boys.  While modern western society has made large progresses in gender equality, there is a lot that has not changed at all.  For example, some girls do not make the effort to do well in school and go into scientific fields for fear of turning off boys.  There are many other examples of this thinking.

I believe that both genders, while in elementary school, are starved of science education.  Most teachers at this level are not science-minded/trained.  But it is at this level where children are most receptive, so the opportunity to inspire girls (and boys) is lost.

In high school, girls interested in science are not necessarily labelled "geek" or "nerd".  Rather, I believe that these labels are placed on those that are non-popular and generally more academic.  "Academic" is not synonymous with science, but certainly girls that are science-minded tend to be more academic in nature.  From what I have observed, the general population (adults and peers) all think it is weird if a girl is interested in "hard-core" science (essentially the non-biological sciences) or engineering.  While not necessarily awkward for the girl, others tend to behave as if it's an exceptional thing.  People tend to be quite surprised and make jokes and have reservations.

What can be done in the classroom?  Start them out young.  Introduce girls and boys to science and technology early and let their interests bloom.  In my opinion, it is important not to segregate women and men into separate categories.  If you want to show kids some of the people in science, don't make a separate "women" unit.  Treating girls as special cases will only expand the gender gap.  Show kids science from different angles and showcase women and men in an identical manner.  Provide girls with sources of female inspiration, while at the same time not treating it as though women have to have this push, to get their word out, or that women will find problems in the workplace.  I find that many female outreach programs emphasize the problems that a woman will face rather than the job itself (being a woman first, then a scientist second).  Society will never be equal if we still think in terms of women and men, and not just people.

Should girls work together with girls?  Is there an advantage to it?  In some cases, all-girls schools make be the right choice for a child.  Some girls get distracted by boys and thus, their academics fail.  Take away the boys and you get rid of the problem (at least during school hours).  Some girls work better with girls because they are intimidated by the boys, especially in the sciences.  Yes, that is sometimes true.  The boys can take over the project, but the girls also can too.  However, the opposite grouping might be true as well.  Some girls work better with boys.  It may be in this case that the girl can interact more effectively with this gender, or perhaps she likes the satisfaction of "beating even the boys".  You see this even with boys.  Some boys always work with the girls.  There's nothing wrong with that.  Whether you think we should have separate or co-ed education, it should be noted that kids should have experience in all sorts of groups.  It may very well be that the child will eventually work every day with all-girls, all-boys, or a mix of both.  Keep an open door, and let them experience everything.

I am currently in a mathematics program, and there are not that many girls taking pure math.  I find it a very interesting program to take.  I personally don't really care whether there is a larger proportion of boys in my classes (there is a fair number of girls in all my classes, actually).  I do what I enjoy.  Suffice to say, I usually end up working on assignments with the other girls in the class.  Girls often gravitate to other girls in a classroom, but that happens likewise with boys, too.  If there are no girls to work with, then the girl shouldn't have a problem finding boys to work with (if there is a problem, maybe the boys are missing something vital in their education).  Men may be from Mars, but the Venus-Mars distance is very close on astronomical scales!  My eventual goal is to become an engineer and a researcher.  Engineering is still dominated by men, but it is happy to see 30% of enrollment at my university is female.  Many of the girls end up taking chemical engineering, which is again the turn to the "softer" sciences.  But I for one, who is again going the other way, will not be fazed.

Stephanie Wong
Mathematics Student
Alberta, Canada

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ANSWER from Evelyn Torres-Rangel on 14 February 2003:
I think any teacher, male or female, that wants to recruit and retain female students has to be proactive.  That is, the positive effect of being a "role model", i.e. a female teacher or person in a position to recruit students in the math and science fields, lasts maybe about 10 minutes.  "Role models" aren't worth much unless they actively try to recruit girls.  This means specifically inviting girls to enroll in math and science courses, and specifically targeting girls to participate in math and science activities.  Girls seem to like "hands-on" types of activities (as do most boys!), such as computer graphics, robotics, science experiments, and the like.  Then you have to constantly encourage and support the girls to maintain their level of participation.  It is a constant battle, but well worth the effort.

Evelyn Torres-Rangel
Computer Science/Robotics Teacher
Southern California

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