When girls are encouraged to explore science, the chemistry is irresistible.
As a youngster she tagged along on her father's excursions. He would pick up rocks and fossils and tell her stories about shells from a sea that no longer exists and prehistoric plants uprooted 80 million years ago. His stories captured her imagination. That's when she got hooked on science.
As a high school student in the 1960s, she was the only girl in her honors physics class. "There were other girls, much smarter than I, who said 'that's a boy's subject, not a girl's.'" As one of the few female college undergraduates studying physics at the University of California-San Diego, professors bypassed her for summer jobs that were offered to male students. "I pleaded for anything, but it was still a male subject in their eyes." Despite societal obstacles, she went on to complete her doctorate in geological sciences. Susan Halgedahl is now one of two women professors who teach geology and geophysics at the University of Utah.
"I was not encouraged, and was actually discouraged by some teachers. They just didn't think women would be any good at this, and so girls got zero attention from most professors in high school and college," explains Halgedahl. "I persevered because I love itI knew if I kept at it that sooner or later someone would be convinced that I could do this kind of work."
Halgedahl's story is not unique. Although the messages sent to girls about their ability to succeed in the sciences may be more subtle today and often unintended, negative messages are still prevalent. How else can one explain girls' loss of interest in science instruction at puberty when throughout elementary school young girls and boys show an equal interest and success in science?
Ironically, girls lead boys developmentally. They talk earlier, read earlier, and count earlier. In preschool, they score higher on IQ tests than their male peers. They usually receive better grades in elementary school than boys. Yet by the time they reach the fifth grade, boys classified as "gifted" far outnumber girls. That, coincidentally, is the time that girls begin to go underground with their mathematic and scientific talentssometime between the fifth and ninth grades, according to the National Coalition of Girls' Schools.
The phenomenon does not escape Utah classrooms. "I'll go into a second-grade classroom and ask, 'Who loves science?' All the hands go up. In sixth grade, mostly little boys' hands go up. In junior high, not many hands go up from anybody," says Genevieve Atwood MPA'91, Utah's chief education officer for earth science. "By the time kids are in junior high school, it has become cool to not like science."
Providing female role models and breaking unbecoming stereotypes about scientists can help students overcome negative perceptions of science education, says Atwood, the former state geologist of Utah who is currently working on her doctorate in geography at the U. She notes that stereotypes are frequently predicated on movie and cartoon characterizations of mad or evil scientists. Prior to World War II, scientists were more commonly portrayed as heroes or socially essential elements of the community. Americans are increasingly suspicious or apathetic about the role of science in society. To help combat the trend, the University of Utah channels its scientific expertise into programs where hundreds of Utah children a year learn early-on that science is "cool."
Reaching Out and Touching Someonewith Science
In part to prepare girls to succeed in college and also to protect youth from being stigmatized, University faculty, staff, and students have made efforts to feed science to hungry minds. As a result of University efforts, school children are being exposed to a greater variety of male and female role models, discovering mentors, and learning to question stereotypes.
The U's Center for Integrated Science Education calls upon students from science, engineering, mines and earth sciences, as well as from the medical school and graduate school of education to engage at-risk students at Salt Lake City's Edison Elementary School; two-thirds of the student body's families are low-income. The two-year-old program provides weekly hands-on science activities for elementary students, many of them minorities, and establishes potential mentoring relationships.
"When University students arrive [at Edison] the kids stop what they are doing and yell 'Science is here,'" says Mary McDonald BUNST'95, who oversees the center. "We've had kids that don't want to go home. They want to keep doing science, even though it is a Friday afternoon." Activities provided by U students have included dissecting a cow's eye, building models of knee joints, and learning about structures by constructing towers out of mini-marshmallows and spaghetti. Edison principal Julie Miller hears the buzz of science talk and observes the positive influence the educational program has had on students' self esteem. After dissecting a cow's eye, one girl excitedly exclaimed to her, "I want to be a doctor. I can be a doctor."
Buffalo parts, stone implements, baskets, pictographs, and petroglyphs are some of the archaeological tools available to youth who have become integral to the Utah Museum of Natural History's educational programs. The Youth Teaching Youth Middle School Program also involves at-risk children, including student "teachers" from Salt Lake City's Glendale Junior High School who, in turn, teach elementary students about scientific discovery. Glendale has a highly transient and ethnic student body which fills the hallways with 17 different languages.
According to Kathy France, a museum coordinator who works with the Glendale students, the program does not only build interest in science, it also builds self-esteem and self-knowledge.
"I found out that I want to be a teacher and that I really like working with kids," says Oanh Dao, who is now in the museum's high school internship program. "Science and math are subjects I especially enjoy teaching." Students like Dao are trained using the museum's outreach kits; the contents of each help explore a different area of science.
France observes that more girls than boys question their abilities to learn the science kits and teach the material. "The boys seemed used to this challenge, but the girls were more easily intimidated and doubted themselves"at first. She recalls one Glendale girl who started out unfocused, loud, and insecure, and certain that she could not teach science. "When she began, she would say, 'If I graduate from high school.' When she finished she was saying 'when I get out of college...when I go to graduate school",' laughs France, who is obviously pleased. "Now she wants to be a research biologist."
The museum's Youth Teaching Youth High School Internship program is a similar project which offers high school students invaluable, hands-on experience working in a variety of sciences. Students work on science projects in the museum, which they present once a month on "Ultimate Saturday" to museum visitors. Reconstructing animal skeletons is one such project that was enhanced by the opportunity to make an accompanying Internet Web site. "I'm learning a lot about the work of an anthropologist in a museum," says intern Angela Watts, a junior at East High School. "I didn't have any experience before and I was really unsure if this is what I wanted to do, and now I know this is something I could really be interested in." Such discoveries are not unusual when students are given the opportunity to explore science on their own.
"They walk away with specific knowledge about the science fields they can go into and a whole lot of enthusiasm," says coordinator Lori Hooker, a former science teacher. "These kids feel like they are learning science in the real worldnot in a classroomwhere they are meeting real botanists, anthropologists and doctors."
Tailored For Women
Learning about sciences is going on in classrooms across America, where lights are going out and a video called "Women Who Walk Through Time" is flickering on.
In it, three female earth scientists guide viewers through a billion years of geologic time. Two of the "guides" who initiated the idea of portraying female role models in the earth sciences through video are U geology professors Marjorie Chan and Halgedahl.
"We wanted girls to see that you can have a career in the earth sciences, have a family, and have a lot of fun," explains Chan, who's two sons and husband accompany her on some of her field excursions in the video. "We were motivated by the fact that women are under-represented," says Chan.
Although the video, and its Web site www.mines.utah.edu/~wmgg/video, can be enjoyed by both boys and girls ages 10 through 18, it was designed especially with fifth- and sixth-grade girls in mind, since this is when many girls lose interest in science.
Each year some 20 selected women who have retained or developed an interest in science use a program called ACCESS as a stepping-stone from high school to the University of Utah. A summer course kicks off this two-year program where participants learn about a variety of sciences through small-group instruction and labs. It creates a supportive, cooperative environment where women learn together about the sciences.
"In ACCESS I saw these young women who had excelled in the sciences in high school and were remarkably intelligent, energetic, and fun," says former ACCESS student Jackie Roberts Timothy BS'95, who was a single-mother returning to school in her mid-thirties when she was accepted into the program. "These young women were an inspiration to me, and I saw that women could really do these subjects." Timothy, who now works as the project review coordinator for the Alaska Coastal Management Program, is raising her two elementary-age daughters to believe they can do science and math. "When I think of what I want my daughters to be like, I think of those ACCESS women," says Timothy. The ACCESS program destroys the myth that women don't do science or that the ones who do are somehow misfits.
ACCESS works. Since its inception eight years ago, 80 percent of program participants have remained in the sciences to earn either an undergraduate degree, enter graduate school, or gain entry into a science-oriented profession. "We have women who have gone on to medical school, engineering professions, and teaching the sciences, to name a few areas," says ACCESS director Sid Rudolph PhD'86. One student, Lisa Grow BS'94, went on to become the first woman to graduate at the top of her class from Harvard Law School. (See Continuum, Through the Years, Fall 1997.) Grow credits her undergraduate science education for preparing her for the logical thinking that law requires. "Science teaches you to think carefully and analytically.
ACCESS provided me a support system made up of students and professors who encouraged women to stick with and pursue a degree in science," says Grow.
Each ACCESS participant is placed in a research lab in an area, such as biology, chemistry, or physics, in which she has expressed interest. "This is a crucial step in getting the women excited about doing research," Rudolph says. When the women finish their research stints, they have learned the necessary skills to land part-time jobs as part of research teams.
Inspiring Young Scientists Through Research
Building on the assets of a research university, one of the resources for providing a broad scope of education is engaging undergraduates in research. The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) match students with professors and laboratory teams. "The experience of doing research as an undergraduate is invaluable," says director Rosemary Gray. "We've had students competing with all sorts of Ivy League students to get into graduate schools, and they're nervous about that; but they find out that their research experience gives them a tremendous advantage."
Thu Anh Nguyen, a former ACCESS student who is now in her second year of the undergraduate bioscience program, has been applying to medical schools. She has already been accepted to some of the country's top institutions, including the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine, and Washington University in St. Louis. She turned down an interview with Yale. Nguyen feels that her research experience and publishing opportunities from her research gave her an edge over peers in pre-medicine. "I'm competing with people who have 90-plus on their MCATs and average a 3.9 grade point average. My research distinguishes me from them," says Nguyen. "I noticed that when the Ivy League students had research experience it was mostly just for a summer. I think they liked my on-going commitment to research."
Despite programs that support and encourage women's interests in the sciences, some female students may feel isolated or intimidated surrounded by men in their classes and field work. Often times minority status is either appreciated and pursued by women or it is resented and avoided.
Atwood says there are two kinds of girls she finds in high school science classes: those who love science and, despite gendered messages, want to pursue it, and girls who distinguish themselves purposely for their academic-minority status. "Being different sets them apart. Instead of painting their hair green to stand out, they have become interested in science," Atwood says matter-of-factly.
Who Influences Girls?
Still, girls and women have come a long way. In the 1950s women scientists were not even allowed to use telescopes without being assisted by men because "women did not know how to run technical equipment," says Halgedahl with a hint of sarcasm. Although society's anti-science message to women is less blatant today, a conscious effort is still needed to make up for the shortcomings in education that girls frequently experience, say science professors.
And parents, rather than peers or the media, have the greatest influence on their daughters' lives and choices. Expectations and experiences from family and community members are more likely to influence girls' decisions than their innate abilities, according to information compiled by the Women's College Coalition.
As a child, Halgedahl recalls all the messages she received outside of her home to deter her affinity for science. "When I was growing up, any science was not considered a fit thing for girls to do." She still thinks that girls don't envision themselves in scientific careers. "Today, girls may not be discouraged like they used to be, but rather they are not encouraged."
Fathers and mothers are crucial in encouraging science exploration. "It was my father who taught me about science," says Chan. "Our vacations were essentially field trips. Picking up rocks, or finding anything interesting and unusual was like a treasure hunt." A lot of messages about a daughter's ability to pursue science and math are relayed through her parents' behavior. A father who encourages his daughter to think about the outside world or lets her help build a computer or maintain a fish tank, is encouraging an interest in her abilities to do science. Whereas, a mother who rolls her eyes and says she can't balance a checkbook and to "Go ask Dad for help with homework," is role modeling to girls that they can't do math. And, math is a crucial part of science. "To drop out of math is to drop out of science," says Atwood.
Putting It To Work
While women face challenges pursuing a degree or career in male-dominated fields, today they can also take advantage of their status as protected minorities when seeking employment. Many companies are on the lookout to hire qualified women. They want to diversify their workforces and are competing to attract women. In some cases, women are offered higher starting salaries than men with similar work experience.
Ann Mattson MS'97, a geologist who quit her job with Shell Oil to pursue a doctorate and a future career in teaching, laments the absence of female mentors in natural resources recovery. She describes the oil and gas industry as an "old boy's network" which women have only been permitted to enter in the last 10 to 20 years. "I think being a female worked to my advantage in being hired, but it worked to my disadvantage in being promoted in a large corporation. A great deal of what helps people get ahead is finding a mentor to look out for them and show them the ropes"something she found particularly difficult without any available female role models.
But perseverance has a payoff. Women who choose non-traditional careers can expect to have lifetime earnings that are 150 percent of women who choose traditional careers, according to the Women's College Coalition.
If present trends continue and girls are not encouraged to take science, math, and computer programming, their skills will be limited to data- and information-retrieval. These are still secretarial/clerical skills which will confine females to the low end of the service-oriented pay scale, note members of the coalition. Studies show that women who take more than two college-level math courses often achieve pay equity with men, and in many cases, receive higher average pay than men.
Lawmakers' recent decision to eliminate Utah's ninth-grade science requirement could have a damaging affect on Utah students who are ripe to pursue growing opportunities in the sciences, according to Suzanne Winters PhD'87, Governor Leavitt's science advisor. "It sends an incorrect message to children that they really don't need to take another science class and does not prepare them adequately for future jobs. The majority of real growth jobs of the future will be in science and technology," says Winters. Meanwhile, most states are increasing their public education requirements for science to four years of high school science. "Not taking the appropriate classes in high school will close many doors, some irreversibly, for students who attend college," Winters adds.
The irony is that the job opportunities are at odds with the gender messages and lack of encouragement girls and young women are receiving in the years they are most impressionable. Judging by the salaries they are offering, many employers are eager to recruit women.
It's like wishing for a tall tree but providing no room for its roots to grow. Students need fertile grounds to nourish their interests in the sciences at home, at school, and in the community. "If so many of our jobs in the future are going to be high-tech and we need plenty of the best and brightest," says Atwood,"it is foolish for a country to turn off half of the prospective supplyour young women."
Peta Owens is an editor in the Office of University Communications.
Photos: Peta Owens
Illustration: Randall Royter