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Low interest rates: NIU study says teachers need to do more to engage girls in science

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When she was young, Marianne Jahnke said she saw images of women in the kitchen, not at a laboratory table.

“I didn’t feel any sort of encouragement to continue in science,” she said of her experience at an all-girls high school.

That’s changed, with an occasional picture of a woman in a white coat, said the teacher of 23 years, now chairman of the science department at Woodstock North High School.

But men in science-related careers still far outnumber women, and a study by two Northern Illinois University professors says that high school girls are bored, disengaged and stressed in science classes when compared with boys.

According to National Science Foundation data, women make up about 26 percent of the country’s scientists and engineers. The number is similar in Illinois.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 data, 24.9 percent of the state’s science, engineering and computer professionals are female.

The NIU study looked at 244 high school students and 13 science teachers.

“It seems that boys and girls are investing the same amount into it, but for whatever reason the engagement switch is not being flipped for the girls, in spite of the fact that they get similar grades,” said Jennifer Schmidt, co-principal investigator.

Participating students were given a pager that vibrated when the researcher wanted to gauge their reactions. When signaled, students immediately reported what they were doing and thinking, rating their engagement, enjoyment, anxiety and concentration levels.

“Boys tend to take the lead in the lab; it’s almost like they kind of push the girls aside and the girls sort of stand back and watch,” co-principal investigator M. Cecil Smith said. “The girls are less comfortable in terms of public displays of what they know.”

Girls tend to rate lectures and completing work at their seats as the most engaging classroom activities, Smith said.

There could be multiple causes for the gender differences, including societal expectations and the role of the teacher.

For example, researchers asked teachers to indicate which students had the greatest potential for a career in science. Only two of the 13 mentioned were females, Schmidt said.

Teachers also were asked to identify the highest achieving male and female students and describe their characteristics.

“The descriptions of males tended to be ‘He’s a natural’ and ‘He just gets it’ – a lot of natural ability,” Schmidt said. “And when they talked about females, they would talk about how hard working they are.”

Many hours of video from the study still are being analyzed, but the preliminary results show that the teachers, who were a mix of men and women, also tended to direct more of their comments in the classroom to males, Schmidt said.

It was all subconscious. The teachers also insisted that there was no difference in their students’ aptitude or how they were treated, Schmidt said.

Jahnke, the Woodstock North teacher, notices that fewer girls than boys continue past the required two years of science. Even applications for teaching positions are mostly from men, and the women mostly have biology degrees as opposed to chemistry or physics.

“I think every high school should make sure they have a couple of women teachers in the science department,” she said. “All the teachers – whether male or female – need to encourage the girls so they understand they can be successful, that this is something they can do.”

Jahnke said that several years ago she tried to start an academic club promoting girls’ involvement in science. But after being denied a grant, the program didn’t get off the ground.

Larry Reinhard, a former science teacher and coordinator of the McHenry County Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom program, said that teachers were key in getting both girls and boys interested in science.

“How does he or she approach it?” Reinhard said. “You have to go out and go after the student. If you project a positive image toward your subject, they’re probably going to like it.”

He also said that curricula seem to have shrunk and become more precise to meet the requirements of standardized tests, Reinhard said.

“The interest in test achievement sometimes eclipses doing things that would be not only interesting, but fundamental to the students,” Reinhard said. “That’s the change I’ve seen in the last 15 years.”

Not that there is anything wrong with performing on tests, he said. But when someone loses interest, the test results won’t be positive.

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