milken conference: sally ride on engaging girls in science

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There are disappointingly few people in this room, but the panel is a great lineup:

  • Ronald Packard, Chairman and Founder, K12 Inc.
  • Stephanie Rafanelli, Science Teacher, Menlo School
  • Sally Ride, Former NASA Astronaut; President and CEO, Sally Ride Science
  • Jane Swift, Former Governor of Massachusetts; Managing Partner, WNP Consulting LLC

It's wonderful to hear these accomplished, articulate women speak.

Ride and Swift both do an overview of the depressing statistics on the underrepresentation of women in STEM education and careers.

Swift points out that our educational offerings are failing to engage girls (and boys) in science. She says that dramatic reform typically doesn't come (from government) unless there's a cataclysmic failure, a train wreck. The problem they're talking about here is a quiet disaster, and hasn't galvanized a response. She criticizes the assumption that if we focus on the needs of girls, and create separate learning spaces for them, that we shortchange boys. The point is to create complementary environments that are designed for learning needs, not to create an either/or dichotomy.

Packard talks about key approaches. You need to make science interesting through hands-on activities. Very few primary education teachers have science or math degrees, so their comfort level is low for teaching this material. His company has been developing materials to support teachers and increase their confidence in teaching science and math. He points out the problem with the lack of visible role models for women and minorities. They've been working in Philadelphia to highlight real people in scientific jobs to help change the perceptions of kids.

Last speaker is a high school science teacher who's quite engaging. She's taught at an all-girls' school, but now teaches at a co-ed school. She asks her students every year to draw a picture of a scientist. Even in the girls' school, these 7-9 graders almost always draw men with stereotypical 'mad scientist' characteristics. She's never had more than 22% of her students in a given year draw pictures of women. Cultural perceptions aren't changing. Even her school, which is highly supportive of her work and speaking, has only now (after 11 years) thought to have her speak to her colleagues about these issues.

She makes an important point about the extent to which the girls she teaches perceive their math and science skills as being weak. They'll say they're not good at math, when their grades contradict that. But once they've convinced themselves that "math is hard," they start opting out of science and math classes.

An audience member--Paula Stern--asks what opportunities are out there inciting girls to involve themselves in math. She also plugs NCWIT's upcoming town hall meeting.

Rafanelli makes a great point about kits and toys for teaching science--to attract girls, they need to be social. Girls want to do things with their friends, and if the kit is designed for one person it won't be as attractive. Ride points out that science itself is collaborative and communicative, and the teaching tools need to reflect that.

Packard talks about the importance of contextualizing science education so that girls see the relevance to things that they care about.

Packard also says his experience is that if you don't test something, it doesn't get taught. If you're going to test, you have to test everything--not just literacy and math. Rafanelli says that very few primary teachers do "real science" in their classrooms, because they're having to teach to the tests, and the tests don't include science. (They're not arguing for the value of testing--they're saying that if you're going to have testing, you can't have it focused so narrowly and still have broad education.)

1 Comment

I have to second the social part. It echoes my experience with my daughter.

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This page contains a single entry published on April 26, 2006 10:25 AM.

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