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Program to increase girls' participation
in sciences

By Stewart MacInnis

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 09 - October 23, 1997

A team of Virginia Tech scientists will be recruiting teachers and middle-school girls in five Southwest Virginia counties to take part in an innovative program to increase the representation of females in the sciences.
"We want to help dispel the notion that boys and girls are not all starting on a level playing field when it comes to science and math education," said Ruth Alscher, associate professor of plant physiology and project director.
The project will establish collaborations with educators in Dickenson, Giles, Lee, Washington, and Wise counties. The counties are in an area of the state with the lowest total job growth; the highest loss in population; the highest unemployment; the lowest growth in median family income; and the highest number of children in poverty, according to a 1994 study.
Girls are often discouraged in subtle ways from pursuing an interest in science, Alscher said. She experienced that herself, and she said she has noticed it among her own pre-adolescent children. Overcoming that barrier is the goal of the two-year project funded by a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Virginia Tech Provost Peggy R. Meszaros said the university will provide an additional $60,000 to the project over the two years.
The Science and Gender Equity Program of Western Virginia, or SAGE-VA, aims to establish a network of middle-school teachers, administrators, and university scientists to review and revise science and mathematics activities in a way to encourage and maintain the interest of girls.
Alscher cites a 1989 report by the American Association of University Women that indicated girls have a different experience in school than do boys. It also found that girls who are successful in mathematics and science courses have higher self-esteem and higher career goals than do girls who have been turned off by these subjects.
Middle-school girls are being targeted for the project because they are at an important transition point in their lives, one at which decisions can have lifelong effects, Alscher said.
The project will focus on the professional development of teachers to increase awareness of gender-equity issues. It will also support girls as they pursue science education, both by the knowledge the scientists have to impart and by the role model they provide. Computer technology will be used to disseminate information and support the project participants, as will the collaborative network of science teachers and professors.
Twenty teachers are to be brought into the program during the first year, with 30 more joining it during the second year. Similar numbers of girls will be included directly in the project, largely through participation in a summer day camp. But, Alscher said, the project is expected to affect 1,000 more students and 200 more teachers through ripple effects.
The summer camp will be held on the Virginia Tech campus during the first year, with its activities being repeated at the participating schools during the second year. The summer camp will include one week spent with teachers, developing skills to promote gender equity, as well as hands-on science activities. The second week of the summer camp will include the science day camp during which the teachers can put newly learned skills to practice.
In addition, there will be at least one "Saturday Academy" during which the teachers and girls will assemble with their Virginia Tech mentors.
Alscher said she doesn't expect any trouble in recruiting women faculty members to act as mentors. Virginia Tech faculty members with a broad range of expertise will participate, she said, including researchers, educators, Extension specialists, and scientists. They will also represent a broad range of disciplines.
"It's something we all care very deeply about because we all know the difficulties women often have in pursuing science careers," Alscher said.
Other women involved in organizing the project are Katherine Cennamo, associate professor of education; Susan Eriksson, associate professor of geological sciences and director of the Virginia Tech Natural History Museum; Julie Grady, a chemistry teacher at Blacksburg High School; Carol Burger, coordinator of the Science and Gender Equity Program at Virginia Tech; Carol Bailey, associate professor of sociology and member of the university's women's studies faculty; Patricia Bevan, an instructional designer for the university's Biological Sciences Initiative; Karen Brewer, associate professor of chemistry; Lori Marsh, associate professor of biological systems engineering and an Extension specialist; Suzan Mauney, a physical science teacher at Blacksburg Middle School; and Rebecca Scheckler, a computer professional at the university.
Alscher said she expects the project to continue after the two-year funding period. It's impact, however, should continue to be felt regardless of future funding. One of its main goals, she said, is to empower teachers to create a self-sustaining cadre of science educators and scientists to continue recent reforms in science education.