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Engineering Like a Girl

How do you build a science and technology program that appeals to girls? Ask these four schools.


The number of girls and boys in fourth grade who like science and math is about the same, but once they reach eighth grade, girls are less likely than boys to show confidence in the subjects. Results from the Council on Competitiveness’ index Where America Stands (2007) indicate that China graduates nearly three times as many four-year degrees in engineering, computer science, and it. By 2010, it is projected to graduate even more PhDs in science and engineering. Yet the U.S. does not boast similar figures. In fact, there doesn’t yet seem to be a consistent stem—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—education plan intact. Encouraging females to enter these fields is necessary to bring our nation’s numbers up.

Academies of Encouragement
There are some places out there that are specifically targeting engineering to girls. The Academy of Math and Science, an 11–12 public school in Worcester, Massachusetts, at the Massachusetts Polytechnic Institute, immerses its student population in stems coursework. Students from throughout the state apply to the academy in their sophomore year, and 40 percent of those accepted are female. Overall, about 80 percent of its students go into math, science, engineering, or technology careers, and about 25 percent go into engineering alone. The daily schedule is nothing short of rigorous. In a typical 8-to-4 school day, students get at least an hour of math, an hour of science, and either an hour of computer science or technical writing. In addition, they are also required to spend an hour on research or engineering—three times a week.

Science with a Human Touch
if there is a problem, girls want to solve it. And at the Academy of Math and Science, they’re given the opportunity to do so. All juniors complete a science, engineering, or math project. The students describe and define a problem, create a prototype to specifications, then test the prototype and redesign it. “And we don’t let them solve it the way it’s been solved before,” says Jackie Bonneau, an academy educator. “A lot of what the science girls end up doing is biological in nature. They like the human touch, and most engineering courses only deal with the technology.” Each project begins with students meeting clients. The problem is then defined and a patent search is done. For example, recently, a public school student with limited motor control who was not very verbal had a team of girls figure out a solution that would allow her to communicate without moving her arms. “Our students created an electrical communication device for this client. It’s engineering with heart, and girls are drawn to it.

“Our girls start the program as juniors, because we want the decision to come here made by the students and not their parents—or to escape from bad school experiences,” says Bonneau. The Academy is not an alternative high school; instead it offers something traditional high schools can’t. “When our students come here, they’re giving up a lot, and girls are less willing to do that,” says Bonneau. “One year, five girls applied from one school and we accepted only four. They decided not to attend because they didn’t want to leave the one girl back home. Boys wouldn’t do that.”

Calibrating STEM Educators
Bonneau, who also does STEM professional development, finds that many teachers simply don’t know how to teach it. They’re more concerned with forming a hypothesis than with solving a problem that uses science in a very hands-on way. The point is that there may not be an answer to questions asked, and teachers tend to be uncomfortable with that. The goal is to have students walk away with something entirely new. At first this seems to be easier for boys than girls. Girls tend to be teacher pleasers, which prompts them to give teachers what they want to hear: the answer. Bonneau says that even if the definition of stem is all over the place, buying prepackaged programs isn’t what’s needed. “We need teachers with the right stem teaching certification.”

Is Smaller Better?
Principal Gary Hale, of Wayne County Public Schools, in Goldsboro, North Carolina, heads the Wayne School of Engineering on the campus of Goldsboro High School. Out of his 162 ninth- and tenth-grade students, about 50 percent are boys and 50 percent girls.

All of Hale’s ninth graders take two-year-long science electives. One is Engineering the Future, and the other is an Application to Science course, created with the help of East Carolina University. These one-period-a-day courses involve robotics, biomechanics, and solid modeling. “All of our freshmen do an interest-based project that has to connect to a core subject curriculum. They also receive an advanced composition course where they learn technical writing skills,” says Hale.

Students apply to attend the academy and parents are heavily involved before, during, and after acceptance. Classes are a mixture of boys and girls, and grades are not an acceptance factor.

Smaller stem academies tend to have more technology and creative student schedules. In the case of Goldsboro, there’s a wireless environment with about 60 laptops, and approximately 80 percent of the students are enrolled in online courses. They’re taking some “learn and earn” college courses online, along with virtual public high school courses, which include language, humanities, and computer courses. The schedule is a little different, too. Students’ first classes don’t begin until 10:30 am, and dismissal is 4:30 pm. “Research shows that teenagers work better with a late day start, but the schedule also allows juniors and seniors to take college courses, or do internships before school begins. “We’re not out to make every student an engineer, but we want them to acquire that ‘thinking’ thought process, so they can apply those skills to any class,” says Hale.


Engineering Is Just Good Science
Linda Chin, Fairfax County Middle School Science Curriculum Specialist, oversees middle school stems for 13,000 students. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), in Virginia, is the 12th largest district in the country, and there is a clear stem focus. Here, gender makes no difference in science class. “We are working on career connections for kids and away from the idea that scientists have to look like Albert Einstein,” says Chin. She is also the vice president of the Virginia Science Educators Leadership Association (VSELA), where she leads statewide discussions for changing science teaching of technology, engineering, and math in Virginia.According to Chin, engineering should not be considered a separate subject but an integral part of science. The same goes for technology and mathematics. She believes that the question should not be whether you’re implementing stem education, but whether or not you’re teaching science well.

“If you’re doing science well, you’re doing stem education,” says Chin. This means that the program should be based on the National Science Education Standards, inquiry-based, and hands-on.“We have found no disparity between the achievement in regard to gender in fcps, or in the state of Virginia, for that matter. All of our students receive science experiences that will put them in a position to be scientifically literate citizens, and to choose a science-related career, if they desire to do so,” says Chin.

“It wouldn’t hurt to have a national advertising campaign with really cool-looking scientists talking about science, math, and engineering, though. Why don’t we do that? We do it with everything else. That sort of thing is what might turn stem’s tide, not trying to teach science through engineering—it won’t work,” concludes Chin.

Leading the Way
Some organizations are working to help schools with stem issues by actively implementing science programs. Project Lead the Way (PLTW) has made engineering coursework possible in 3,000 high schools and middle schools throughout the country. Its most recent programs include medical science sequences, with 150 schools signing on within the first year. Niel Tebbano, vice president of operations for PLTW, says that engineering is a big part of their middle school and high school programs, along with biomedical sciences at the high school.

Tebbano says that 40 percent of the engineering enrollment at the middle school level, where the courses are required and not electives, is female. However, when students reach the high school level, where it’s all electives, the percentage drops to 17 percent. This percentage is consistent with females enrolled at the college level, and, according to Tebanno, it has been for the last twenty years.

There are pockets of programs where female enrollment is much higher. For example, a pltw school in Harvey, Illinois, Thornton Township, has a 50 percent female enrollment. This holds true for the city of Milwaukee—where enrollment is also running 50 percent female at the high school level.

What Makes the Difference?
Tebbano believes that boosts in female engineering course enrollment happen when there is a recruitment effort, lead by a teacher or school counselor who focuses on attracting females to the program. “Our own data shows that girls perform at the same level as boys in our program. The old notion that girls can’t do math—is just an antiquated stereotype,” says Tebbano. “We try to share that this is exciting stuff, and girls can do the work—and the math.” Many others do believe that getting the word out makes a difference, and school counselors around the country are doing just that. In addition, 30 university sites, including Duke, Purdue, Penn State, University of South Carolina, and Texas at Tyler have partnered with PLTW to help spread STEM's word to local middle schools and high schools.

The biomedical sciences lead the way nationwide in science education, where 60 percent of students are female. This may explain why the percentages in engineering and other science courses have dwindled. Life sciences seem to attract females more readily than applied sciences like engineering, and it seems to be a consistent, nationwide trend. “The idea of saving lives resonates strongly, and for many females, it’s what they want to do,” says Tebbano.

Tebbano believes in an engineering immersion method, similar to the method in which languages are learned. “I agree that science, math, and technology underscore what engineering is, but you can provide the context where students can apply the concepts and skills of engineering in a project- and problem-based way. When pltw students get to college, they know what engineering is and the rigor required to do it,” says Tebbano.

He believes that throwing more math or science programs at students isn’t the answer. Instead, an integration of science, technology, engineering, and math is required—which is what stem programs are all about.


STEM's Legacy
Sally Ride began Sally Ride Science, a “science content company” that works with schools and universities, in 2001, to encourage students, especially girls, to pursue their science interests. She suggests that educators connect stem education to the real world by incorporating the stories of modern scientists into instruction, and by hosting stem career days with local scientists and engineers. Ride feels that by bringing to life the inspiring personal stories of current-day scientists and engineers, students can see what scientists do, how they got there, and why they enjoy it. “Professional development for teachers in the upper elementary and middle school levels, who may not be science majors but teach science, should be a big focus. We are actually working with nsta on this now,” says Ride.

Ride, often referred to as the “First American Woman in Space,” blames the social pressures of middle school for girls’ departure from the sciences. “Ever since I left nasa, I’ve been passionate about fueling young people’s interest in science. We know that today’s students are interested in having an impact on their world. We must show them that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics provide excellent ways to make a difference in their communities, in the country, and in the world.”

Ride believes that the task of educators today is to keep enthusiasm in science through the middle grades and beyond. “Fourth graders look forward to science,” she says. If students see science as interesting and math like solving puzzles, they get the right message from the start. We want eighth grade girls and boys to think science is cool. We don’t want them to get to college unprepared for the rigors of science coursework—and be forced to forfeit opportunities due to lack of background.

”Another pioneer, Judith Love Cohen, who has managed NASA projects and authored science and math books for girls, says, “My interest in motiving girls to study science and engineering was viewed by me as a means to an important end—doubling the available people who could qualify for technical jobs. We need to convey that the possibilities for engineers and scientists are unlimited.”

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