Even when little girls yearn to be scientists, even when their hearts and minds are aglow with the thrill of learning about how the world works, somehow and somewhere along the way, the light is extinguished.
According to studies for the National Science Foundation, only about a quarter of all women entering college plan to major in science and engineering, and about half of those women drop out.
With a few exceptions like medicine, women lag far behind men. In 1997, women earned only 12 percent of all doctorates in engineering and only 14 percent of doctorates in physics and astronomy.
It's not that women just can't "make the grade." Rather, as Caitilyn Allen of the University of Wisconsin says, "The women who leave the sciences have grade point averages higher than the men who stay there. So it isn't a question of not being able to do well in the classes. It's a question of not feeling comfortable, I think."
Allen, a professor of plant pathology and women's studies, has set out to change that for women. At the University of Wisconsin, they've instituted a program called WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), with an all-women science dormatory and chemistry lab.
It has its benefits. As Caitilyn explains: "Ninety female students live in the same girls-only dorm, where they can always find someone to shoot the breeze about science, where it's okay to hit the books hard. The women take special labs together, hold seminars on finding jobs, act as a support network."
Jennifer Covington, a physics major who's learning to run a nuclear reactor, is one of Caitilyn's WISE women. She knows first hand what it's like to study in a male-dominated field: "I've never had a professor who's treated me as different or anything like that. But I do tend to sit in the front of the class in those classes, so I don't have to see the sea of guys."
For Jennifer and others, the WISE program seems to be paying off. Of the 60 women who entered the program in its first year, at least 45 are graduating with science majors.
There are WISE programs at other universities too, but educators are beginning to realize that, long before the college level, girls are getting a "don't go there" message about science.
Shirley Malcolm, director of education at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says, "If you talk to little girls you will find that they really do want to know how things work and they really are quite excited and quite fearless about it. It iover time that girls become women, and then it's as adult women that they often get pushed out of these fields and discouraged from participating in these fields."
Educator Kathleen Bennett agrees: "The research shows very clearly that girls in middle school turn away from technological pursuits."
To change the tide, Kathleen Bennett founded The Girl's Middle School in Mountain View California. The school is located smack dab in Silicon Valley, where female computer scientists are a distinct minority. The school's focus is science, engineering and, of course, computers.
Kathleen believes that it's not a matter of girls not being able to compete with boys in the classroom, but a matter of culture. She says, "I think girls can compete if they want to compete, in whatever they want to compete in. I think that when you're talking about young adolescent girls, they do what I call 'hit the wall of femininity.' And if you look at the magazines and you look at the media, you find that the message we give young women in this society is not about being an engineer or a computer scientist or a physicist or a chemist."
So, along with intensive work in science, the girls at The Girl's Middle School study commercials and magazines to analyze how women are portrayed in the media.
The kids like the program. One girl says, "It's really fun, because now we get to do more things, because sometimes in other schools the teachers focus just on the boys and not on the girls."
The Girl's Middle School is experimental and just in its first year, so it's too early to know if the training here will inspire these girls to go on to careers in science.
But it's just one of many experiments going on all over the country, as schools try to figure out how to turn girls on to science and tailor classes to fit the ways girls learn.
At Robbinsdale Elementary School in Rapid City, South Dakota, there's a program called Teaching SMART, where teachers like Bobbie Kambestad conduct classes under the watchful eyes of monitors. The monitors document whether teachers are giving girls the same chances as boys for hands-on work and for speaking up in class.
"I'm not a women's libber," Bobbie says, "and when I first heard about Teaching SMART, I thought 'oh it's one of those women's things,' and it's not. What it's talking about is fairness. Teaching SMART allows girls to have that fair opportunity. What I see is that they're more willing to take a risk down the road. You know, they're more involved, they're saying 'this is for me, I don't have to be passive in this, my ideas do count'."
There is, of course, one important question: What if girls are not attracted to science? Should we push them?
Shirley Malcom of the American Association for the Advancement of Science answers: "We have to carabout this because young women are really the majority of those who are entering colleges and universities and those in higher education. And we have to be able to get the workforce of the future out of that population. We are pushing away half of the talent pool of this country when you really don't encourage girls and young women to pursue their interest, wherever they may be, including science and engineering."
So the start of a new system for turning girls on to science and for keeping them tuned-in is beginning to take shape, one program at a time: at a university in Wisconsin, at a grade school in South Dakota, and at a middle school in California.
For more information on the WISE program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, contact Professor Caitilyn Allen at 608-262-9578.
For more information on The Girl's Middle School, contact founder Kathleen Bennett at 650-968-8338, 180 N. Rengstorff Ave., Mountain View, California 94043; or visit their Web site at www.girlsms.org.
For more information on Teaching SMART, visit their Web site at www.teachingsmart.org; or call them at 800-529-1400.
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