Educators encouraging girls to scope out science careers
by Valerie Fields Hill
Inside Veronica Godbey's Grapevine home, there are lots and lots of books.
There are at least five translations of the Bible. There are literary classics. There's a book or two on the Protestant Reformation; texts on environmental engineering. Some are in French, Latin or Russian.
Everywhere are signs that Veronica's parents, Alice and Nicholas, both graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, appreciate the sciences and the notion of independent inquiry. So does Veronica.
"We're building volcanoes in my kitchen," she said, laughing.
Veronica is no joke. She graduated second in her class from Grapevine High School and will attend MIT this fall, majoring in physics and astronomy.
Attracting girls such as Veronica to studies - and careers - in math and science has become a goal for the Grapevine-Colleyville school district and districts elsewhere across the nation.
More and more, young women graduating from high schools want to grow up to become physicists, astronomers, engineers, mechanics, and other math and science professionals, said Bill Noxon, a spokesman for the Nation Science Foundation, which researches gender gaps in math and science education.
"That's been a trend that's continued to increase in the last 10 or 15 years," Mr. Noxon said. "Women have been increasing their percentages in almost all areas."
According to the foundation's recent report, Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities 2000:
- Women made up nearly 20 percent of the national undergraduate enrollment in engineering programs in 1997. That figure increased by 4 percentage points in the decade between 1987 and 1997.
- Women earned 181,333 bachelor's degrees in sciences and engineering in 1996 - nearly half of the bachelor's degrees conferred that year in those disciplines.
From 1980 to 1997, nearly a third more women pursued full-time graduate degrees in sciences and engineering.
"Progress has been made for women," the report states. "The numbers and percentages of women completing ... bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in science and engineering have increased over time."
Much of the interest that women scientists and engineers have in pursuing college degrees began when they were in middle school, educators say.
"What they've found out is that at the middle school level is when girls begin to try on [career] roles," said Terry Dickson, coordinator for science, health and physical education at the Grapevine-Colleyville district. "Unless they have positive images of themselves in those roles, they won't pursue them."
In recent years, the Grapevine-Colleyville district has increased the numbers of girls in several key areas, including pre-Advanced Placement, Advanced Placement, and gifted and talented programs.
"When you look at all of those programs, we're very even," said Dr. Jennifer Killian, principal at Heritage Middle School. "There's not that much difference in the boys and the girls."
To encourage more girls to consider careers in math and the sciences, Grapevine-Colleyville has deliberately sought out and hired more female teachers in the technology, science and match disciplines.
At Dr. Killian's campus, all of the science teachers are women.
"Part of this is an effort to [offer] role models for the girls," Dr. Killian said. "That's very important."
This summer, the district plans to offer a new summer camp geared toward girls with high aptitudes in math and science - to encourage them to consider careers in marine science, aviation, meteorology, even motor sports racing.
The career camp is for girls in grades six through nine. Classes will offer campers the chance to visit hospitals to talk with women surgeons or to sit in a jet cockpit and track weather conditions for planes. Some campers will get a behind-the-scenes look at car racing at Texas Motor Speedway or visit a zoo to talk with women who are marine biologists.
"We want to show our junior high girls that being a scientist is an attractive career field," Dr. Dickson said.
Veronica recalled that some of the girls in her junior high classes were not open to studying math. To interest more girls in math and science, she said, teachers must increasingly link equations to the everyday lives of girls.
"You have to tie it in to what they're familiar with," she said. "If we had a course that was the chemistry of cooking, then there are many girls that would be interested."
That's what her parents did: They made learning fun for Veronica, her sister and brother - often through messy, hands-on activities.
"Parents who want to live in a model house and have kids will be very disappointed," she said. "You have to have the messiness. That influences the kids' creativity."
Veronica will enter MIT on Aug 23. When she's there, she knows that she will be among a minority: There are fewer women at the prestigious technology campus than men.
"The people that'll be in my field are mostly guys. It doesn't really bother me, though. I get along with most everybody," she said. "It just so happens my interests are more in line with the boys than the girls."
But if many educators have their way, Veronica may begin to see more and more young women by her side.