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Topic: [ME] Science for girls only
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ME] Science for girls only
Posted: Jun 26, 1999 4:19 PM
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Newsweek, New York, June 21, 1999, p. 64

Science for girls only

By Patricia A. King

Headnote: At this start-up in the heart of Silicon Valley, a class of
pioneers learns to make all the right connections

The subject of the day is electrical circuits, and the sixth graders are
tinkering intently with wires and batteries. But the real subjects of this
experiment are the students themselves, a pioneer class of 35 who have
enrolled since last September in the new Girls' Middle School in Mountain
View, Calif, the heart of Silicon Valley. They're having a little trouble
with defective batteries and miswiring, but they're not fazed. Earlier in
the year they built suspension bridges out of Popsicle sticks and arch
bridges out of Styrofoam, so they're not about to be bested by some stupid
loose connection. They are intent on understanding how Christmas lights
work-why some blow out singly and why some blow out a whole string at a
time-and how to repair them. "Then," notes Aliya Lakha, 12, "we won't have
to ask men to fix it."

Making girls electrically independent on Christmas Eve is only a microcosm
of the school's mission. The teachers (including a Stanford-trained
structural engineer) and the curriculum (where 40 percent of class time is
devoted to science, technology and math) were both chosen to make the girls
as comfortable in technical subjects as they are in writing and history,
says founder Kathleen Bennett, a former teacher and technical writer for
Apple. The math, science and tech courses emphasize handson learning and
working in groups, both of which promote girls' interest and learning. (The
program also includes language arts, Spanish, fine arts and performing
arts.) The first class-chosen by an admissions committee from 80
applicants-is not all science whizzes; their career ambitions range from
computer engineer to horse trainer to teacher to lawyer.

You'd think that Silicon Valley would be the last place where girls would
need to be sold on science. Not so. Even here, says Bennett, girls "hit the
wall of femininity," when the formerly feisty and intellectually daring
become afraid to stand out. As a result, far fewer girls than boys enroll
in high-level math and science classes, particularly physical science,
found a 1992 report on "How Schools Shortchange Girls," by the American
Association of University Women. The failure of those teachers to give
girls as much attention and computer time as boys seemed to be part of the
reason, as was peer pressure on girls to hide their brains and zip their
lips. Although the gender gap has closed some, the AAUW concluded this year
that "girls' failure to take more top math and science courses ...
threatens to make women bystanders in the burgeoning technology industry of
the 21st century."

Not our girls, they said in the Valley. The warning that girls are getting
the short end ofthe mouse has attracted to GMS an all-star advisory council
that includes CEOs Carol Bartz of Autodesk and Trip Hawkins of 3DO. It has
also attracted $2.5 million for start-up costs. Venture capitalist Dan
Lynch was first in line with a $100,000 gift. His daughter, now 29, quit
science when middie-school peer pressure kicked in, he says; he fears his
9-year-old (who for now is "interested in absolutely everything like
squashing bugs and seeing what they bleed") will make the same mistake.
"Girls are still afraid not to be cool," especially in front of boys, Lynch
says. Other parents agree: nationwide enrollment in girls' schools has gone
up 20 percent in the last eight years.

All-girl classes can be especially helpful in middle school, a transition
period when conflicting messages about femininity and achievement, and the
need to fit in, often erode girls' self-image. But at the $10,000per-year
GMS, which will expand to eighth grade in 2000, girls get all the teachers'
attention and all the leadership roles. Sixth grader Divya Dujari, 11, who
wants to be the CEO of a
computer company, raves about the help she gets from teachers and the
chance to do cool projects. Kris Bobier says her daughter Audrey has been
sold on GMS ever since the open house, when she built a tower of cards. But
there was an even stronger draw. "We were losing her," says Bobier. "She
was shutting down to school. She really is a free spirit. This school gives
her room for that." As for Audrey, she's so delighted with her boy-free
school that she's hoping to remain at a girls' school until college.

Critics argue that a single-sex environment gives girls a false idea of
what they'll face in the real world. Also, studies of girls' schools have
produced conflicting results, with some suggesting that it is small
classes, innovative curricula and great teaching that really help. But even
if no one has figured out a sure-fire way to hook girls on science and
tech, GMS probably has a better shot than most. After all, if they can't do
it in Silicon Valley, where can they?

Photograph Caption -- Getting wired: GMS sixth graders Kathryn Lloyd

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)

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