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Making Science Girl-Friendly Pays Gender Dividends

• July 14, 2011 • 4:00 AM

A study in which the benefits of learning science were wrapped in issues traditionally associated with girls indeed generated more interest from the underrepresented sex.

If you want to interest girls in science, show how it will help them investigate stereotypically feminine concerns like caring for their skin and hair, says a just-published study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology.

After examining a wide array of science textbooks, University of Luxembourg educational researcher Sylvie Kerger concluded that most present real-world examples are “embedded in masculine contexts.” But wrapping scientific subjects — at least initially — around female-friendly topics could kindle interest in scientific fields under-populated by women, Kerger says. Studies have shown that interest counts more than ability toward choosing a major or a career.

While women now constitute a sizable majority of U.S. college students — they received more than 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees in 2008 — females earned fewer than 35 percent of degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics awarded that year, according to Linda J Sax, a professor of education at the UCLA.

Kerger gave 294 eighth- and ninth-grade boys and girls questionnaires asking them whether they would like to study biology, physics, information technology or statistics the following year. Instead of naming these subjects, the questionnaire presented each science through topics found in previous studies to be either male- or female-friendly. “How does a laser read a CD?” was a masculine way to ask about physics, while “how is a laser used in cosmetic surgery?” addressed stereotypical girls’ concerns.

The youngsters rated their interest on a scale from one (not interesting at all) to five (very interesting). Presenting these sciences in a feminine way increased girls’ interest in physics about a half-point, in information technology more than 0.75 of a point and in statistics more than a full point.

But the male-versus-female presentations didn’t affect girls’ interest in biology. (“Watch blood coagulate from a small wound,” appealed to them as much as “reflect on how skin tanning comes about in the summer.”)

“Girls are already very interested” in that science, even when presented in a male-friendly way, says Kerger.

Increasing the girl-friendly content had a predictable effect on boys’ interest. When researchers couched information technology as learning “how to order clothes over the Internet” rather than figuring out “how the inside of the computer is structured,” boys’ interest dampened in that science.

Faced with this zero-sum result, Kerger and her colleagues don’t argue for single-sex classes. This is a cross section, so while some girls aren’t interested in stereotypically feminine topics, they point out, some boys are. The reverse also holds true. So they recommend teachers offer a choice among several modules dealing with the same scientific concepts wrapped around various male- and female-friendly topics.

Should we worry that addressing girls’ stereotypical concerns, such as about their appearance, will validate and strengthen superficial interests?

Not really, said Kerger, because interests are already there. On the other hand, using any such initial interests to draw girls into science can reap dividends, because after activating initial interests – and the researchers acknowledge their work only showed how to cultivate initial interest in science, not how to sustain it — teachers can cultivate and maintain girls’ scientific bent by tried and true methods. They include promoting cooperative group learning, giving students challenging opportunities to gain competence, and always pointing out the meaningfulness and relevance of scientific learning.

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Kathy Seal
Kathy Seal is a journalist who has contributed to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Carnegie Reporter. Co-author of two books — Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning (Holt, 2001) and Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids (Prometheus, 2008 ) — she speaks frequently at schools on motivating children to learn. She is now at work on a memoir.

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