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?
******************************************************* * Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org