"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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Connie 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: http://chassettwalkerresearchblog.blogspot.com/.
The views expressed are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health