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Girls In Science

Several decades ago, the makers of the “Barbie” doll came out with a model that gave a recorded message (among several) that said, “Math is hard.” The company was flooded with letters about the message and the whole event helped to shed light on how we treated girls in math and science differently from how we treat boys. That is changing, but the pace of change is ever so slow.

Girls are different in some cognitive ways from boys. We are not sure if that is hard wired or cultural. Regardless, it is a difference. We have been trying to get more girls involved in science for decades. The tight job market is helping but the age old structure of many science classes is not.

Think about junior high years. Boys are in a physical growth spurt that takes most of their energy. Some researchers think that boys are not expanding their thinking skills as much as their height due to the energy drain by physiological growth and changes. Girls by that age have generally finished their growing spurt and are ready for thinking challenges. Our curriculum in math and science for those years is generally aimed at keeping the concept load steady and the real thinking challenges are held off until 9th grade. I believe that by the time the 9th grade year rolls around girls are bored to death or are comfortable with the no growth model and when hit with the challenging tasks in both math and science they shy away expecting more of the same from 7th and 8th. Lots of my female high school students will tell me that science is boring and that they are not very good at it.

To counteract this female brain drain in the middle years many agencies have cranked up the content in free units aimed at girls and training for teachers to target the specific needs of these young women in school science classes. A good place to begin is with the USDE site on “What Works.” It includes a practice guide that is a great tool when redesigning lessons.

I went through my lessons and activities this past summer and discovered way too many that needed revision. Most were simply not as connected and interesting as they could be. For these, I revised them to start with a high-interest activity, and a few contained stereotypes I should have caught earlier. Most fixes were easy. I looked for compelling stories with strong women in science roles or careers. I revised feedback to praise effort and build confidence. It involves more than finding examples from areas we think generally interests girls.

I know we all know that the girls in our classes are interested in more than hair, nursing and makeup. However, you could not tell that we do from many of our lessons. My female students were drawn to any medical connections in chemistry. They were also quite interested in forensics and materials science. Yes, not many wanted to learn from a hunting analogy but cooking now grabbed the attention of boys and girls especially if it involved a lab. Sports science and nutrition in particular was interesting to all.

I teach in the Midwest and many of my students are involved in 4H and have agricultural tasks at home. Farming and soil related connections to science are interesting but more so if I make use of their already deep knowledge of farming and ranching. What they seem to want is an expanded world of interesting “stuff”. For me, the world of science is full of that.

I thought that by opening up the creative side of the science activity world I would attract more girls into science classes. That did work but it also worked for the boys. Activities where I ask the students to construct models had a strong appeal for girls and a big payoff in understanding for the guys. Requiring the students to defend and explain their model was interesting as well. The boys did not do as well as the girls with the first model. In the second model building activity (on atoms) the boys had learned a bit about the power of evidence in their explanation and did better. However, the girls as a group had much richer explanations and evidence for why they constructed their models as such and how those decisions related to the key understandings about atoms.

These models had a second benefit to girls. Research on girls in science indicates that girls are not exposed to enough spatial reasoning. They do not do well when asked to imagine an object in three dimensions and rotate it to a new view. This skill which is critical in most engineering fields is not directly addressed in many science classes with enough depth for females. Models, which are three-dimensional, help. I also use a variety of modeling tools on the web that allow students to rotate molecules or shapes and structures for different views. It all seems to help. One engineering task several years ago was followed by a presentation by a female architectural engineer. The questions from the class were richer in the class that had completed the spatial reasoning tasks in building models.

I may not be creating the next generation of engineers but I am certain that the changes I am making in my teaching and the activities in my classes are helping all my students understand key science ideas better. If I make the class more accessible to all and remove some of the roadblocks I did not notice before, that is a huge step forward.

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