Almanac

Schools - June 1, 2011

Bridging gender gap in science

by Kate Daly

Menlo School has launched a pilot program to boost the number of girls who study science, technology, engineering and math — referred to as STEM.

The program grew out of the work of the Girls Committee, formed at the Atherton school last year, and made up of teachers, administrators, board members, alumni, parents and students.

The committee's mission was to answer such questions as these, posed by committee member Grace Limaye: Why is the student speaker at graduation almost always a boy? Why do more boys win elections in the upper school? Why do we not have more gender balance in robotics, applied science research, and computer science — classes dominated by males?

Ms. Lamaye, an enrichment specialist in the middle school who teaches science, now finds herself as co-leader of the pilot program called M-BEST (for Menlo's Bridge to Engineering, Science and Technology), which is restricted to girls.

Upper school engineering teacher Joanie Banks-Hunt is the other co-leader.

This school year, Menlo has been working with about 75 female students, in grades 7 through 12, to give them more exposure to the STEM fields by showing them role models, introducing them to mentors, and creating opportunities to collaborate.

As the academic year winds down, some students are already involved in internships that are a direct result of the M-BEST program.

Menlo School decided to design its own program. While there are nonprofit programs and extracurricular options, the researchers couldn't find an existing school-based program to follow, Ms. Limaye said.

The M-BEST co-leaders recruited about 15 upper schoolers to act as an advisory board, and help brainstorm. Board members set up 10 workshops on Saturdays. For example, one student organized a workshop on electric cars and lined up a speaker from Tesla Motors.

Some 56 younger female students, known as "scholars," have been meeting periodically with the co-leaders during the school day.

Why so few?

In designing the M-BEST program, the co-leaders looked to a research report recently released by the American Association of University Women and entitled, "Why So Few?"

The paper states: "Although women are the majority of college students, they are far less likely than their male peers to plan to major in a STEM field."

Two reasons for this are stereotyping and bias. The paper studies the difference in boys' and girls' math performances, pointing out they are about the same, with boys doing a little better in spatial skills. The report adds that with some training, that gap can be closed.

What's missing for girls, the paper concludes, is "an environment of encouragement."

At Menlo, Ms. Limaye said, "there is a lot of cultural stereotyping and peer pressure going on. ... some classes may be perceived as too nerdy or too 'boy.'"

Senior Annie Cook, who serves on the M-BEST advisory board and is "math and science focused," noted that few girls take AP chemistry and physics at Menlo.

She said the recent M-BEST workshop on medical professions has inspired her to think about becoming a doctor or vet. She hopes to study molecular biology at Yale.

In April, a total of 11 doctors spoke to female students about their jobs. Dr. Yvonne Cagle, a family physician who grew up in the Bay Area and went on to become a NASA astronaut, told the students why the medical profession is "very different" from other careers. "It's very personal," she said. "You never give up, and you never let up. It's not 9 to 5. You're in it for the duration until the job is done."

Another speaker, Dr. Jill Helms, is a craniofacial surgeon and stem cell researcher at Stanford. She chose to go into medicine after her mother developed lung cancer. "That was a real turning point," she said. "I wanted to make a difference. I was smart enough. I knew how to work harder than anyone else. I don't give up, am curious about how things work, and care about people."

Dr. Kathryn Hodge, a flight surgeon with the Air National Guard at Moffett Field, had her own story. "I wanted a little more excitement than a clinic setting offered," she said, "so I went into rescue medicine."

She described the duties as ranging from combat search and rescue, including in Afghanistan, to airlifting critically ill passengers off cruise ships, and assisting after Hurricane Katrina.

"There's nothing more rewarding than rescue," she said. "You can't tangibly measure it because it's in your heart."

When Dr. Hodge showed off the contents of her 40-pound backpack filled with emergency supplies, she had the rapt attention of Liz Simonovich, an eighth-grader who is interested in pediatrics and orthopedic surgery, and Alex Welch, an 11th-grader whose father is an electrical engineer and mother was a pediatric oncologist.

Dr. Susan Adler, an anesthesiologist, and fellow Menlo parent and speaker Dr. Chris Threatt, a urologist, compared notes on their experience working with females in the medical field. They agreed that women tend to practice obstetrics, pediatrics, family medicine, dermatology and anesthesia, and that surgery is still a predominantly male field, particularly orthopedics.

Ms. Limaye noted that today there are more females than males enrolling in medical school. Her father, who is a doctor, is hiring more female doctors to work part-time. When it comes to raising families "it's easier to balance work and home life now," she said.

Seventh-grader Denna Nazem attended the medical workshop, but said a better fit for her was an M-BEST workshop where she played a computer game with a movie scene. "I'm into technology and I enjoy computer science and programming," she said.

In May, Dr. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, spoke on a topic that would interest Denna: "increasing and retaining the participation of females in computing."

Even though a few people have complained that boys are excluded from M-BEST, the program will continue to be open to girls only in the fall, Ms. Limaye said.

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