Becoming the daughters of modern science

Nov. 12, 2009, midnight | By Rebecca Novello | 12 years, 6 months ago

Encouraging girls to follow math and science interests through school and beyond

The riddle goes that a boy and his father are injured in a car accident and immediately rushed to the hospital. When the boy is sent to surgery, the surgeon says, "I can't do the operation; this is my son." The "trick:" the surgeon is the boy's mother.

While this age-old riddle is meant only as a simple brainteaser, its basis, formed on the assumption that the surgeon is male, points to a troubling reality in the world of math and science careers. According to a 2007 study by the National Science Foundation (NSF), men outnumber women 73 to 27 percent in all areas of science and engineering employment. The study also reports that, though the numbers of women in these occupations have more than doubled over the past 25 years, the gender gap still exists.

Last Saturday, Nov. 7, seventh grade girls from around Montgomery County visited Blair for the 21st Females in Science and Technology (FIST) conference, a program designed to keep girls interested in math and science and begin to close this career gap, according to FIST coordinator and science teacher Megan Dieckman. The FIST conference may last only a few hours on one day of the year, but it represents a broader push for girls to pursue shown interests and talent in math and science and balance the numbers of men and women working in these fields.

Bringing science to life

The FIST conference gives middle school girls the opportunity to complete engaging activities in different areas of math, science and technology. Teachers and scientists alike are invited to design quirky activities in fields of their choosing to share with the students. In its 2007 study, the NSF found that boys and girls in elementary school typically show an equal interest in science but that female interest drops significantly in middle school. Chantel Fuqua, a biomedical scientist for the Science Applications International Corporation and member of the Bethesda chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), believes that this decline in interest may stem from lack of staff support for young girls in science classes. "It can be difficult because people sometimes don't think you have the same ability [as boys]," she says.

While Dieckman is unsure of what causes the trend, she has ideas for changing it. She says that the best way to keep students involved is to keep the material alive. And through sessions that invite girls to take part in hands-on activities like drawing trails with ballpoint pens and watching termites follow the ink path, which has a scent similar to their own pheromones, Dieckman believes the annual FIST conferences can remind math and science-oriented girls of their love for the fields. "Our goal is to be a part of that change in the positive movement," she says.
Dieckman makes an effort to apply this teaching style in the classroom every day, as well. "I try to think of really strange stories that relate to what we're doing," she says.

The 'wow' factor

Stories are not the only way to keep the classroom alive, though — the key is creativity. Fuqua says that any kind of engaging class activity can help maintain young girls' interest when it comes to science. "Teachers need to do a better job of making it interactive," she says. "Not just showing it on paper, but showing how it is in the real world." She suggests that teachers try exploring science in the context of current events with their students and encouraging the students to analyze how science influences political policy. In an effort to create this kind of "real world" atmosphere for students, several Blair science teachers took the Matter and Energy and AP Chemistry classes on a field trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the Solar Decathlon, a competition in which several groups of college students are faced with the challenge of designing and building sustainable houses using solar energy.

Dieckman says that part of her motivation to develop a lively classroom environment comes from the positive effects of this outside-of-the-box thinking on her own journey towards the sciences. Her 10th grade chemistry teacher called himself "The Wizard" and dressed up as one on back-to-school nights to perform experiments in his room. She believes that this is the type of creativity necessary to draw more middle school girls to math and science. His passion for the subject inspired her to pursue her own love of science in the form of a career. "I think that's why I both went into science and became a teacher," she says.

Senior Redab Alnifaidy, who assisted in the Java programming class at the FIST conference in her freshman year and again this year, says this creativity is only the first step to building girls' confidence in a male-dominated area of study. She believes that the "wow" factor, the stories, experiments and other exciting classroom activities that Dieckman describes, must be followed by in-depth scientific explanations as they are in FIST conferences, to give girls the determination to press forward and develop careers in science.

Alnifaidy was first drawn to science because she found that it explained the world around her better than the humanities did. As she watched the girls in the programming session two years ago, she saw the same understanding that pulled her to math and science light up their faces as well. "Whenever they got their program to work, they seemed really satisfied and proud of themselves," she says. She believes the same idea applies for any area of science. "When you can get a really scientific explanation," she says, "you feel smart."

To infinity and beyond

But even these explanations become boring, says junior Claire Hoffman, if a student is not given the chance to explore their own creativity in math and science. Hoffman was interested in engineering and architecture in middle school, but she didn't have a creative outlet in the classroom. She finally found the opportunity in an annual science fair where students could design a model of a project under very broad parameters. The freedom of the hands-on, interdisciplinary experience drew her attention and helped her maintain her love of math and science. "I was allowed to use creativity to develop something scientific," she says.

According to Dieckman, a key aspect of FIST is the freedom of choice that it gives the students. The girls apply to attend the conference and come in voluntarily on a Saturday, so they feel independent and confident in their decision. This liberty makes the learning all the more beneficial, she says.

Hoffman agrees that leaving an open door to opportunities is a vital part of attracting interested girls to the sciences. When she graduated from Takoma Park Middle School's Math, Science and Computer Science Magnet Program, she felt burnt out from the intensity of work and turned off from the subjects. "By the end of eighth grade, I was a little fed up with it," she says. With seemingly no time to express her artistic side, she decided to take a break from her heavy math and science workload.

While the logic may seem contradictory at first, Hoffman says that giving herself the open door without forcing herself through it was, in fact, the best choice she could have made to foster her passion for science. "I actually became more interested in science because I wasn't forced to do it," she says. Propelled by that curiosity, she took AP Biology as a sophomore and is currently enrolled in AP Chemistry.

A guiding hand

Both Alnifaidy and Hoffman say that growing up with a math- or science-oriented female role model has created an atmosphere of encouragement without undue pressure in their households. Alnifaidy's mother is an accountant, and Alnifaidy's admiration for her led to an early and keen interest in math. "It's kind of like how people admire athletes," she says. "I think people would admire mathematicians and scientists if they were more publicized."

Hoffman says that seeing her own mother work in the sciences has fueled her love of the sciences as well. "I've grown up with this promotion of interesting exploration of the sciences," she says. When her mother worked as a professor and researcher in the University of Maryland's Entomology department, she says, Hoffman developed an avid interest in insects. Hoffman fondly remembers visiting the lab with her mother as a child and feeding baby mosquitoes involved in the research. Even through Hoffman's brief shift away from math and science, her mother's support and impact has remained constant. "[When I was] in AP Bio, we could just have the wonderful long conversations about anything I was studying," she says.

Fuqua, whose father is a mathematician, emphasizes the sense of support that a positive role model in a math or science career can instill in a young female student, both by example and by answering questions as Hoffman's mother does. She recommends that girls interested in math or science seek out mentors for their studies — parents, teachers or even family friends — to provide support through the enlightening but potentially difficult years of fighting their way into male-dominated fields.

But even for those with strong role models at home or at school, the struggle to compete in such a field can be daunting. Alnifaidy says the challenge of facing an area of study with far more men than women is trying at times but that it pushes her to constantly improve. "It's always been difficult, but it's also what motivates me," she says. "I'm a representative for my gender. I have to make myself better because it's not just for me."

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