Equal Lab Time For Girls

Why don't more women choose careers in science and engineering? CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver considers the issues and some solutions in her weekly column for CBS.com, "The Braver Line." Her report on women students in science and engineering appears March 14 on CBS News Sunday Morning on CBS Television and here at CBS.com.color>

It hit me when I saw the 6th grade girls playing basketball at recess. The girls in my grade school loved basketball, and kickball and softball. But we always played jacks and jump rope. The second the recess bell rang, the boys dashed out to the playing fields, and it never even occurred to us to ask if we could play too, or to demand equal time.

Those were the days before the consciousness-raising women's movement of course, but suddenly I got what Kathleen Bennett was saying. She founded the private Girls Middle School in Mountain View, California, not so that girls could play basketball but so that they could feel that science, math and computers were their legitimate stomping grounds. "If you go into a co-ed classroom," she notes, "a lot of times you will see the boys hogging the computers."

At first I was skeptical, but that basketball scene brought it all home. If girls didn't think to complain, and if teachers didn't think to intervene, wouldn't they be relegated to pencils as surely as we were stuck with jacks?

Bennett's response is to create a girls-only safe harbor. And her students are deeply appreciative.

Julie says she chose the school for two main reasons: "Because I'm a math, science and technology person, and I like the idea of not having boys here."

Sasha says that unlike her last co-ed school, girls here feel "it's fine for them to be serious and strong and great engineers, or whatever they want to do here."

Brenda says, "It's really fun because now we get to do more things, because sometimes in other schools the teachers focus just on the guys and not on the girls. And so this time...they show us, like, girls can do, like, a lot of things like be engineers, scientists and not like other schools."

Like, cool! And I knew, as I watched the girls demonstrate a project for designing their own periodic tables, that the boys would have laughed at the pink and purple and flowered and starred charts being shown off in class that day.

Still, I'm not sure that gender segregated classes are the answer. For one thing, I liked going to school with boys, even if they were a bit aggressive. For another, in the real world, women must work with men. If you want research to show that girls get a better education from going to single sex schools, you can find it. You can also find studies to show it makes no difference in the long run.

In Rapid City, South Dakota, the public schools are trying a different experiment. It's called Teaching Smart, and it concentrateon seeing that girls are treated fairly in class, that they get to take the leadership roles, do the hands-on experiments and speak out in discussion sessions as frequently as boys do.

In the past, teacher Bobbie Kambistad says, "The girl was willing to watch the boy get his hands dirty. But now what I'm seeing is that girls realize that they have a chance, that they can do the same things that the boys are doing."

The big news at Robinsdale Elementary School, where Kambistad teaches, is that with all this shared responsibility, both girls and boys are doing better in science.

Is this "chicks-in-labs" push needed? Well, in 1997 women earned only 12 percent of all doctorates in engineering, and only 14 percent in physics and astronomy. It's easy to say that maybe women are just more interested in interior decorating, but I don't think so.

At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the administration noticed that the dropout rate for women science majors was higher even though they had better grades than the male students. Research showed that the problem was not that women were being discriminated against. They were influenced by more subtle factors: male-dominated classes and faculties, fears about balancing the rigors of scientific research with the demands of a family.

So the university launched WISE, or Women in Science and Engineering. Girls live together in an all-girls dorm, study together, take special labs and form support networks, hear from women who've actually succeeded in scientific pursuits. Early signs show that WISE women are sticking with their science majors.

If programs like the ones in Rapid City and Mountain View succeed, then by the time girls get to college, excelling at science won't be any bigger deal than winning at jacks.

By Rita Braver
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