Beyond the heavy metal doors of any science classroom at Inglemoor High School in Kenmore, fluorescent track lights reflect off of large, slick lab tables covered with petri dishes and Bunsen burners. Cheap neon safety goggles rest in small aluminum cupboards on the back wall, sterile after another antibacterial bath. All around the rooms, glossy posters reading “Her Lab in Your Life,” “Women in Biology” and “Don’t Worry, There’s a Woman in Charge” cover the walls.
As the bell rings to signal the start of each period, the doors slam shut with a resounding thud. Three determined women of varying ages and backgrounds take their positions in front of three separate classes as their students take their seats. Both parties are witnessing something out of the ordinary. Unlike the majority of high school science faculties – particularly in physics and chemistry – Inglemoor’s staff is almost entirely women, and all three department heads are women.
Even with pockets of progression at schools like Inglemoor, society still perpetuates the old adage that boys are better than girls at science. Just think back to the speech made by Harvard president Lawrence Summers which brought the issue into the national spotlight at an educational conference. As Summers hinted that innate biological differences might factor into the low numbers of women in science, it became all too clear that the stereotypes still persist.
Years ago, many young women commonly quit science courses
in a phenomenon education researchers call the “leaky pipeline.”
The pipeline left a skewed population of science graduates, in this case
a population primarily composed of men. This testosterone-heavy environment
is the very one Summers discussed in his speech – one that served
as a cultural reminder that gender bias still exists, even in the upper
echelons of the education community.
Today, Roth teaches chemistry at Inglemoor and is one of three department heads who are taking strides against gender stereotyping in our own backyard. She and her colleagues are using their moxie and subtle, gender-neutral teaching tactics to fight the discouraging beliefs about girls’ success in science. Thus far, they’ve been successful in increasing girls’ interest in their classes, but the question still remains – in the face of beliefs so entrenched, how does one proceed?
Roth uses her position as a person of authority to make an impact on girls in her classes. Today, she stands in front of her chemistry class doling out instructions for the day’s lab in a twangy southern drawl. Dressed in Ann Taylor-type attire with her hair neatly arranged to frame her face, she attempts to move away from the classic Bill-Nye-the-Science-Guy image. She wants to create a broad definition of the profession, one that encompasses trendy women. “I try and portray in the classroom things to move away from stereotypes that it [science] isn’t socially nerdy,” she says.
Roth also brings in examples of women in science shown in textbooks, posters, magazine articles and video clips to help her students visualize themselves in the scientist role. Early in her career, Roth began supplementing her material when she realized girls were often shown passively observing boys learning science. In her classes Roth sees the results of this fictional depiction coming to life when girls act as the sole note taker or post-lab maid for lab activities. In response, Roth periodically organizes her students into single-sex lab groups so girls can experiment with science without delegating lab-related tasks to the boys.
Even with her daily efforts to fight the stereotypes, Roth still has many stigmas to overcome. On the top of her list: convincing girls that they can and should embrace the subject without fear of social isolation. “The one thing I’ve seen from girls is that they want to keep it under wraps. For example, this past year I had students applying for a summer science program. I had this one girl who was very bright, capable, a go-getter, who wanted me to sign her form, but not tell anyone,” says Roth.
On the other side of a shared conference room, Roth’s colleague Kelly Haupt stands before her 8 a.m. physics class with a dry erase marker poised for action. She opens her lesson by drawing a familiar stick figure whose name, Pat, is as simple as its outline. Haupt adds two towering rocks to the scene and announces that this Wyle E. Coyote-like physics nerd has returned for a rock-climbing adventure. As she turns to face the class, she explains that Pat is stuck in the canyon and needs their help getting out.
In the 20-minute lesson that follows, Pat’s most obvious function is to teach Haupt’s students about rope tension. On an ongoing basis, Pat serves a larger purpose because Pat is intentionally ambiguous. Haupt invented this gender-neutral mascot to show her students that science is no longer a fraternity for boys.
Haupt didn’t always recognize gender bias in science. In fact, she didn’t encounter people who altered her naïve perceptions until she left her college bubble in Walla Walla. In her first job interview with a biotech company, a male interviewer in a crisp lab coat drilled her with technical questions using a tone more appropriate for a little girl. “As soon as I hesitated [to respond], he announced to me that I ‘still had wheat sticking out of my ears’,” Haupt recalls. “I left the building in tears.”
Discouraged, Haupt returned to Walla Walla to work. Eventually, she heard about the teaching program at Willamette University in Salem, OR. She soon entered another liberal arts school that proved to her that gender didn’t have to be an issue in science. It was a stark contrast to her experience in the job market. “I was fortunate in my [classroom] experiences … There were at least an equal number of female students in the MAT program at Willamette as males, and there were some strong, intelligent personalities,” Haupt says. “I think some of us intimidated the guys.”
This morning Haupt, who’s rarely seen without a smile on her face, hardly fits the definition of intimidating. Standing in front of her 4th period physics class, she pushes up the sleeves of her sweater and gets down to business. Her voice cuts through the murmur of student voices as she points out the stations for the day’s lab with a flurry of hand gestures. Though many students tower above her 5’4” frame, Haupt commands their attention as she rushes to the back of the room to demonstrate a series of fine-tuned instructions and tips.
With her enthusiastic approach to a difficult curriculum, Haupt is a true-to-life role model of a woman who has succeeded in science and is proud of doing so. “In my classes, I am not aware of any innate advantage the boys have over the girls. Teaching physics knowledgeably and enthusiastically conveys to the girls that science isn’t just for boys,” says Haupt, “I often refer to my colleagues in biology and chemistry when discussing various science issues in class, and the awareness of the student body that we have a female-dominated department helps our female students pursue science more confidently.”
In past years, Haupt discovered just how powerful her example can be. The growing number of girls in her classes demonstrates what previous research has documented: Girls benefit from having female role models in science. Take a study on girls in science by Jacob Blickenstaff, professor of science education at Western Washington University. Though he found that a low proportion of female science teachers reminds girls that the field is unattractive to women, the reverse effect seems to be true at Inglemoor.
Adjacent to Haupt’s room, veteran biology teacher Sue Black, a slight, wiry woman with the build and energy of a marathon runner, forms the third link in this trio of role models at Inglemoor. Like her coworkers, her decision to promote gender equity came from a series of events.
When Black was a tall, gangly graduate student at UC Davis, she shared a lab with another student and their male professor. Black found that whenever the professor needed information about campus events, weather, or graphic art for lectures, he addressed her. He directed every science-based question to her male counterpart. “It frustrated me and I remember thinking if I told too many people about it that they’d think I was making it up,” says Black. “I also remember distinctly wanting to keep a tally of how many times [the professor] asked me a ‘hey, how is the campus fair’ question versus a science question.”
Today Black is finally getting the opportunity to keep a
gender-based tally. As she bounces to and fro in a practiced lecture,
she makes a little tick mark on her seating chart every time she calls
on a student – making certain girls get as much speaking time as
the boys. In so doing, she is trying to discourage gender bias in her
class based on research that showed boys were called on more often than
girls in science classrooms. “Ever since I read the literature [about
teacher’s ignoring female students] I was aghast that sometimes
I was calling on boys for the really hard questions, even when you know
you shouldn’t be doing that,” says Black.
“Middle school and high school seem to be where girls begin to leave the sciences. In part, this is because high school is the first time that students can chose to avoid certain classes, like physics or chemistry,” says Blickenstaff. Yet, the students at Inglemoor have taken a different route. Girls increasingly take the science sequence and apply to science/tech colleges like Caltech and MIT.
Though the solutions aren’t as solidified as the stereotypes, the age-old beliefs about girls in science are starting to wear thin on the patience of many. While some individuals take an activist’s approach to defeat the stereotypes, teachers like Roth, Black, and Haupt spur young girls’ interest in science by practicing gender equality in the classroom. Whether their actions are a template for others to follow remains to be seen. What’s certain is that they’re making strides against gender stereotypes and moving toward lasting improvements.
“It is difficult and probably an oversimplification to try to give a recipe for ‘how to teach science to girls,’” says Blickenstaff. “I believe that good teaching is inclusive teaching and will help all students; it just may help women and other under represented students more.”
©2006 Caliope Publishing Company
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