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Girl’s Education 1

Girls’ Education in Mathematics and Science

Christina Park
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Girls’ Education in Mathematics and Science

The subjects of math and science seem to have equal appeal to girls and boys until the middle

school years, when girls begin to lose interest in these classes. By the end of high school, few

girls pursue advanced math and science courses, sealing off future opportunities in science and

technology, which provide some of the highest-paying jobs. This creates a gender gap in math

and science achievement, resulting in a noticeable lack of female representation in these fields.

(AAUW, 1992), (NYS Occupational Education Equity Center, 1995), (Zohar, 2005).

In the effort to eliminate this gap and increase high-paying job opportunities for girls,

researchers have studied the female students’ experience in high school physics and math classes

to determine the cause of their lack of interest and confidence in these subjects, (NYS OEEC,

1995), (Zohar, 2005). In a recent, comprehensive meta-analysis using 81 international studies,

researchers found an unusually high degree of gender bias present in these classes against female

students’ participation coming from their teachers, their teenage male peers, and sometimes even

their parents, (NCGS, 1993), (NYS OEEC, 1995), (Zohar, 2005). Girls are given a sense of

alienation from these fields by attitudes that females do not belong practicing math and science

and have no future in it. These attitudes are communicated by classroom dynamics, which give

boys more attention in class than girls, and ignore innate abilities in females, (Sadker &

Zittleman, 2005), (NYS OEEC, 1995), (NCGS, 1993), (Zohar, 2005). Also, their teachers were

found to frequently counsel females against advanced study in these subjects, while encouraging

males with average grades to continue in the field, (NYS OEEC, 1995), (Zohar, 2005).

Contributing to this bias is current science and math curriculum and textbook materials

which, despite years of Title IX reforms, almost unanimously ignore female scientists and

mathematicians in history, only citing the work of males in the field; many even reinforce
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stereotypes, (NYS OEEC, 1995), (Sadker & Zittleman, 2002/2003). This applies to three of

today’s leading teachers’ science texts and three of the leading teachers’ math texts, (Sadker &

Zittleman, 2002/2003).

The traditional ways of teaching these subjects also causes most girls to tune out, since they

involve methods that are oriented to male learning styles. Lessons favor the use of lectures,

competitive activities, working in isolation, criticism of thinking, and theoretical abstract

exercises with no real world context, all of which appeal to boys but not to girls, (Pierce, 1998),

(Zohar, 2005).

Nationwide goals for ridding the school system of gender-biased attitudes will require

educational reforms on state education department levels, altering policies to change textbook

standards and setting clearer guidelines for providing a more gender-equitable learning

environment, (NYS OEEC, 1995). However administrators and educators can significantly

change the female educational experience in science and math classes with reforms in their

approach to teaching. Preventing teaching methods from being dominated by male-type thinking

can eliminate the sense of alienation from the field that girls feel, (Pierce, 1998). Eliminating

pervasive gender bias requires that these teaching reforms must address males as well as females,

(NCGS, 1993). According to the National Association for Women in Education, creating a

female-inclusive learning environment in the school system is a matter of adjusting what is

taught, and how it is taught, (Pierce, 1998).

Curriculum and content that includes the work, achievements, and perspectives of women,

acknowledging their heroism when appropriate, is essential for students to recognize women as

contributors to human civilization, (Pierce, 1998). One leader in the field of science who should

be included in curriculum is Rachel Carson, a scientist and the author of “Silent Spring”, written
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in 1962. Her book gave birth to the environmental movement by revealing the ecological threat

of chemical toxicity. She finished the book while battling terminal cancer and enduring pressure

from corporations who opposed her work, (Pierce, 1998). Another famous scientist is the

molecular biologist Barbara McClintock, (Pierce, 1998). The work of these pioneers needs to be

included in basic science curriculum to relay a message to female and male students that women

are a part of math and science and belong in the class, (Sadker & Zittleman, 2002/2003).

A number of studies conducted on how women learn confirm that there is significant

difference in the way that males and females perceive and assimilate concepts, (Zohar, 2005).

When science and math teachers teach abstract principles using a masculine style of reasoning,

females generally lose interest, (Zohar, 2005). The book “Women’s Ways of Knowing” refers to

this as the difference between “separate knowing” and “connective knowing”, (NCGS, 1993).

Furthermore, the masculine style of learning or coming to conclusions is “exclusionary”, while

the feminine style of learning is “inclusionary”, (Pierce, 1998).

Essentially, this means that male thinking, or “separate knowing”, approaches abstract

concepts without context to its origin or its consequences on society. No connection to meaning

or purpose is used to work with abstract equations, and so concepts and laws seem unrelated to

each other or to the real world. Male “exclusionary” information processing approaches learning

by doubting the information being presented to clarify it or test it through argument. One person

is right, the other is wrong, and competition is the technique for arriving at truth, (NCGS, 1993),

(Pierce, 1998), (Zohar, 2005).

Female thinking, on the other hand, is “connected” in that they look for the abstract concepts

that connect science and math exercises to real life, revealing what causes things to happen and

what consequences are created by things that happen. Their learning process is “inclusive”, so
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that instead of doubting and criticizing the presented information they believe it and test it by

trying it on, mentally, seeing it as potentially complimentary to their own view. They clarify or

test information by adding other perspectives to their own experience to complete a picture and

make it collective information, (Pierce, 1998), (Zohar, 2005). Many consider this to be a form of

critical thinking just as valid as the traditional competitive form, making scientific thought more

holistic, (Pierce, 1998). This type of thinking broadens the science education experience to

include the consideration of social and ethical issues, as well as innovative social uses of its

principles, (NCGS, 1993), (Pierce, 1998).

For this reason, traditional teaching techniques like competitive races, dichotomous critical

arguments, lecturing, rote learning, and mechanical problem-solving drills don’t engage girls in

class, (Zohar, 2005). Teaching science from a “connected” reasoning style would involve

introducing abstract principles by relating their use to the student’s own life experiences and

instinctual knowledge, giving meaning to the material and demonstrating that these new ideas are

compatible with their existing knowledge, (NCGS, 1993), (Pierce, 1998), (Zohar, 2005). Other

techniques that have proven successful with girls include relating technical knowledge as

instruments for solving real-life problems by discussing them in the context of social and

environmental topics familiar to everyone such as petroleum, industry, and everyday household

appliances, (NYS OEEC, 1995), (Zohar, 2005). Critical thinking can be taught by an educator

modeling critical self-reflection and appreciation of different perspectives by testing their own

beliefs to rid them of individual bias, (Pierce, 1998).

Teaching techniques preferred by girls involve cooperative work in a relaxed environment

such as small group discussions, investigative group work, sharing information, and equal

sharing of time between students for answering questions and being responded to, (NCGS,
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1993), (Pierce, 1998), (AAUW, 1992), (Zohar, 2005). Hands on learning, such as lab work,

invention projects, and on the field observation, engages girls and holds their interest, (AAUW,

1992), (Chu & Danke, 2000), (NYS OEEC, 1995), (Pierce, 1998).

Exposure to role models in the fields of math, physics, technology, engineering, and other

sciences is particularly effective in motivating girls because meeting these women gives girls a

way of identifying themselves with the field, (NYS OEEC, 1995). Sally Ride, a scientist and the

first American woman in space, started the “Sally Ride Science Festival” for girls to hear her

stories about being an astronaut. Additional workshops included interacting with other female

scientists in building their own volcano using kitchen chemicals, playing Jeopardy with

knowledge on energy conservation, creating three-dimensional animations, and viewing a giant

Lego rocket, (Steindorf, 2002). Some institutions launch other role-model projects such as

inviting female professionals to speak to students in order to give them insight into the nature of

the work entailed and academic requirements for career planning. Other projects have developed

online mentoring programs, or telementoring, where female professionals engage in dialog with

female students, (Chu & Danke, 2000).

Projects have also been created to evoke parental support for girls by using after school clubs

or workshops to engage parents in science and math activities with their daughters. This can help

parents overcome anxiety regarding these subjects and the effects of these male-associated

subjects on their daughters’ reputation, (NYS OEEC, 1995).

School Libraries can facilitate and even inspire teacher’s efforts to create gender-equitable

learning. Providing gender-equity training materials that heighten teachers’ awareness of the

inequities girls must overcome can motivate teachers to change their habits and can offer them

new teaching approaches that work for girls, (Chu & Danke, 2000). Libraries can provide more
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biographies and books on female figures in scientific professions, helping to fill in the current

gaps in the curriculum. Libraries can get involved in exposing girls to role models by having

female professional speaker events or starting a telementoring project. Providing a welcoming

atmosphere for parent-student science and math activity clubs can inspire new perceptions in the

family and learning community, (AAUW, 1992).

Reintegrating female thinking styles into the learning process is necessary for closing the

gender gap in math and science achievement. Furthermore, both female and male students stand

to gain from holistic critical thinking, which enables them to look at the consequences of

scientific work and research options before making a decision, (NCGS, 1993), (Pierce, 1998).

The professions of science and technology need to be influenced by this type of thinking for the

development of a more responsible scientific community.
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Chu, Beatriz, & Darke, Katherine C. (2000, January). Innovations in Intervention Settings.

WEEA Digest, WEEA Equity Resource Center: 12+. Retrieved February 11, 2007, from The

Contemporary Women's Issues database.

Math & Science for Girls. (1993). Math & Science for Girls. Washington, DC: National

Coalition of Girls' Schools. Retrieved February 11, 2007, from The Contemporary

Women's Issues database.

New York State, Alliance for Girls and Women in Technology. (1995). Girls and Women in

Technology-A Call to Action-Preparing Girls and Women for A Technological Workforce.

Albany, New York: NYS Occupational Education Equity Center. Retrieved February 11,

2007, from The Contemporary Women's Issues database.

Pierce, Gloria. (1998, Winter). An Inclusive Paradigm for Education-Valuing the Different

Voice. Initiatives, 58(3): 57-66. Retrieved February 11, 2007, from The Contemporary

Women's Issues database.

Sadker, David, & Zittleman, Karen. (2005, April/March). Closing the Gender Gap-Again!

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Sadker, David, & Zittleman, Karen. (2002, December/ 2003, January). Teacher Education

Textbooks: The Unfinished Gender Revolution. Educational Leadership. Retrieved January

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Steindorf, Sara. (2002, March 19). Sally Ride Enters New Frontier: Convincing Girls That

Science Is Cool. Christian Science Monitor, 94 (79): 12. Retrieved February 11, 2007, from

The Contemporary Women's Issues database.
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The AAUW Report. (1992). How Schools Shortchange Girls. Washington, DC: American

Association of University Women Educational Foundation. Retrieved February 11, 2007,

from The Contemporary Women's Issues database.

Zohar, Anat. (2005, January). Physics Teachers’ Knowledge and Beliefs Regarding Girls’ Low

Participation Rates in Advanced Physics Classes. International Journal of Science

Education 27(1): 61-77. Retrieved February 5, 2007, from The Academic Search Premier