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Girls’ science, TIME magazine and the American Association of University Women report

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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"I’m from Britain, and when I first moved here I couldn’t believe that American kids got three whole months of summer vacation. Back in England our children only get six weeks. But here…it’s…bleech!"

This rather unkind comment was uttered by a woman sitting next to me at Mathnasium, a math tutoring center located in Chatham, N.J., in response to her perusing the August 2, 2010, issue of TIME magazine. In "The Case against Summer Vacation," author David Von Drehle discusses American children’s "summer slide" during the 2.5 (not three) months that they’re out of school—that is, unless their parents make a concerted effort to involve them in enrichment activities. This woman, whose name I never learned, and I are both sitting in the math center’s waiting area for just that purpose—preventing summer-mush brain syndrome in our children.

It’s mid-July and my daughter is halfway through a package of 16 hour-long math sessions, tailored to her abilities and intended to advance her math skills over the summer. (Fractions! Long division!) She’s also enrolled in our local library’s reading program (read 10 books in 10 weeks and win tickets to a play). And, she participates in my informal girls’ science club, typically run out of our kitchen and occasionally down at the local field for rocket launches and dropping-Mentos-in-Diet-Coke-to-watch-the-fizz experiments.

For the past 10-plus months, our science club girls have been involved in all sorts of enrichment activities, including molecule-making, electricity experiments and tending to worm farms. During a recent club meeting focused on introductory chemistry, the girls tested various substances’ pH levels using red cabbage juice. We’ve visited the Rutgers University Schommer Observatory for a viewing of Saturn, Mars and Venus as well as Liberty Science Center. The girls also won second place at their school’s science fair several months ago for a presentation about acoustics. ("If you bang the tuning fork and then slowly move it into the cup of water, watch what happens!")

Running the club is fun and rewarding—as well as exhausting and, at times, frustrating. (Unlike my college students, the science club girls don’t text during lessons. They do, however, chatter much more about Barbie, going to Build-a-Bear workshops and Justin Bieber.) What initially brought the moms together to form the science club was shared aggravation over crowded elementary school classrooms (up to 28 kids per class). What has kept me going over the past academic year and this summer are several things I have learned:

First, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) recently released a report, "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics" (pdf). Parents can shape their daughters’ interests in science by infusing home life with science activities and opportunities to learn. Similarly, the National Science Teachers’ Association (NSTA) has issued a position statement about the critical role that parents and caregivers play in sparking children’s passion for science. Mind you, proactive parents won’t entirely solve all the issues identified in the AAUW report (such as negative stereotyping about girls’ abilities’ and interest in math and science). That said, they can help lay a solid foundation from which girls can hopefully draw throughout their lives. A science professor colleague once told me that her love of science began as a child through participating in science fairs. Perhaps that is what our science club is doing—creating future scientists.

Secondly, New Jersey’s science standards are shifting, although the new curriculum, textbooks and interactive learning kits won’t be rolled out in my daughter’s school district until the 2011–12 academic year. The science club girls will take the New Jersey grade 4 ASK (Assessment of Skills and Knowledge) science test around May 2011, although the exam won’t necessarily sync up with either current or future New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards.

What does it all mean? The district’s science curriculum is in flux, but we parents can stay the course. To my knowledge, our science club girls haven’t yet encountered any sexist messages about their science abilities. Knowing this may happen in the future, we wait and prepare our responses.

In the meantime, I have an introductory physics lesson to prepare for next weekend.


Connie Hassett-WalkerConnie Hassett-Walker, PhD, is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Kean University and the author of Black Middle Class Delinquents (2009, LFB Scholarly Publishing). In her free time she directs a science club for elementary school age girls and is a member of the National Science Teachers Association. She blogs about research methods for her college students at:

The views expressed are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Comments 11 Comments

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  1. 1. dbtinc 3:33 pm 08/30/2010

    I can’t believe it either and I’m from the US. The Teachers’ Union has become disproportionately powerful and serves its interests ahead of significant educational reform. Given the billions spent by all taxing bodies the return on the investment is miserable. Time after time studies have demonstrated where the US ranks compared to the rest of the world – it’s embarrassing but apparently politics rules and taxpayers are too stupid to "get it."

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  2. 2. candide 5:25 pm 08/30/2010

    Americans spend less time in school than any developed (and some non-developed) countries.

    The #1 obstacle to longer school days and longer school years is – teachers.

    Randi Weingarten would sell her sole for a dollar.

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  3. 3. notslic 5:32 pm 08/30/2010

    The key to educational success, as stated in the article, is parental involvement. When teachers have to babysit the kids of stupid people like dbtinc, the dedicated few are ignored. I bet you also get your views on climate change from Beck and Rush…MORON.

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  4. 4. notslic 5:33 pm 08/30/2010

    Ditto for you, candide.

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  5. 5. In-Tokyo 6:47 pm 08/30/2010

    dbtinc candide,

    The problem with America is mainly that people regurgitate the misinformation they hear without stopping to think about it.

    Your opinion that teachers and their union are to blame may be right, but without further information — we can’t know on what basis you are saying that.

    As for "sexist messages ", I distinctly remember my female classmates ridiculing the Computer Science instructor for the way he talked. None of my male classmates did that. Yes his tone was flat, but I was more interested in the content of his message.

    I don’t think science ability runs along a male/female split at all, but do think that different people have more or less interest in that type of field (versus one with more importance on social nuance).

    I felt sorry for that college instructor and am dismayed that I let my classmates influence my choice of direction. I guess I am a product of sexism in the reverse direction that women like to write about.

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  6. 6. In-Tokyo 9:12 pm 08/30/2010

    The sincere worry I have about the feminine agenda is the likely resulting pressure on teaching methods to enhance emphasis on verbal skills which girls excel at.

    We can see this in reform math where describing a process is more important than the result and those naturally inclined to calculation are penalized because they are not as gifted verbally.

    In reform math, I could see my artistic mother outperforming Einstein because at a young age she was very good at describing things verbally while Einstein was not.

    This encouragement of process is in the recommendations of "Why So Few" and while in and of itself not bad, a pedagogical focus on verbal description of math processes is surely to result in other countries out-achieving students who are not taught with such a method.

    You can see math curriculum changed to select those things that lend themselves to verbal description and important content being left out.

    To the degree that "Why So Few" supports a change in teaching methodology to encourage those who prefer verbal description, I think a mis-service is done to actual learning.

    There are girls who calculate well and do not prefer the verbal approach to math skills. In the push to encourage girls to pursue math and science, I hope the girls who naturally do well in these areas are not forgotten.

    This is not so say even those girls don’t need encouragement on process, but that rather if encouragement of process is taken too far, that those most inclined to excel at math will suffer.

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  7. 7. Archimedes 6:42 am 08/31/2010

    In my opinion, it would be much more productive and just educationally, if every individual was treated as an "individual" rather than a member of a particular gender, race, or ethnic group. This is the rational approach which, in itself, is based upon the scientific fact that each person is an individual intellectually, culturally, socially, and physically. This approach promulgates individual group virtue and respect for the rights of others and self respect.
    Our Educational and political system has, unfortunately, promulgated a new "DARK AGES" in education through it’s Orwellian, Machiavellian, and authoritarian norms and means.
    Rather than promoting science, rationality, and the respect for the individuality, it furthers concepts that are essentially irrational, barbaric, and an insult to the humanity of every individual regardless of gender, race, and/or ethnicity.

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  8. 8. mairead1520 8:41 am 09/6/2010

    It seems to me that all the article really shows is that wealthy, well-educated middle class parents buy educational advantages for their children that poorer families cannot afford.
    It is hard to see how low income families where parents (often single parents) slave long hours for few pennies can possibly compete on any level.
    No wonder the rich -poor divide is getting bigger all the time.
    In line with the UN Rights of the Child, surely ALL children in a given country should have access to the best education the country can afford to provide, especially in the richest country in the world

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  9. 9. aidel 12:50 pm 09/17/2010

    Agree! A+ for "getting it."

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  10. 10. aidel 1:15 pm 09/17/2010

    In addition to the race/class disparities that mairead1520 has already pointed out, you have to admit that the mood in this country is very anti-education in general and anti-science in particular. Part of this has to do with the political power of right-wingers, part of it has to do with the more general stronghold that religion has on this country, and, at the end of the day, I think it’s fair to say we (as a country, or Washington) makes drastically poor decisions on how to spend money. At the first sign of the economic crisis, we should have been pouring bucket-loads of money into education (other countries have done this and avoided the problems that we now face). Education, to begin with, should be free — from preschool through graduate school. Secondly, the entire public education system needs to be overhauled. We are using an industrial-age model of education that is at least 70 years out of date. (This is a top down model of education in which walking quietly in a straight line is important, the teacher holds all authority -which is no longer true, either in terms of information or social organization – and being on time and following directions is far more important than creative thinking and problem solving.) The shift in education that I have seen is that we are educating children to become consumers (and not very savvy ones at that). Multiple choice tests are a perfect example. What we are not teaching children is how to critically evaluate information, how to independently problem solve, the value of creativity (in everything from art to sciences), and most depressing of all, most college graduates today are not even culturally literate, not to mention critically literate. And the Trillions we’ve spent on the Gulf war helped us … how, exactly??

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  11. 11. LMac4 1:20 am 05/2/2012

    I think summer vacations are a crucial time to start getting volunteer work experience. Gaining real life experience at an age when it is important to find one’s ambition is more important than traditional school work. I began job shadowing veterinarians before I started high school to see if it was a career I wanted to pursue. There is no substitute in a textbook for the thrill of spending the day in the OR watching surgeries. Without that experience, I would not have known that was what I wanted to do.

    On a side note: I am curious about the claims that girls are less interested in science. Are the environmental sciences and animal sciences included in this? It seems to me that every discussion of the shortage of women in science fields are talking about engineering type disciplines. I am in the animal sciences field which has been dominated by women since the 1980s. Roughly 75 percent of all doctors of veterinary medicine are women. Men actually get a “rigor point” on vet school applications simply for being a minority in the field. As a woman in a science field surrounded almost exclusively by other women, I feel that there is a significant number of us left out.

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