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New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering

The NSF books on girls and science

These contain invaluable resources for how to engage girls and young women in activities that encourage their interest in science and engineering. No reason you can't do them at home or in camp.
New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering by Pat McNees. The original compilation of NSF grant awards made from 1993 through mid-2002 by the GSE program. Download by chapter (PDF) or download whole book, free.
New Formulas for America's Workforce 2--Girls in Science and Engineering (available formats: HTML and PDF) NSF’s investment in projects to improve the representation of girls and women in the sciences, mathematics, engineering and technology, from mid-2002 through 2005.
New Tools for America's Workforce (HTML or PDF, posted 8-8-07) New Tools catalogs a wide variety of products from NSF-funded projects to help teachers, employers, policymakers, and parents foster gender diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

In writing that first book for the National Science Foundation, as I read the files of NSF-funded research projects (and researchers) I kept wishing I could go back to school and learn "hands on" about science, the way girls learn it best.The book synthesizes findings and practical suggestions from 224 NSF-funded projects, which studied differences in the ways girls and boys learn (and react to) math, science, and technology in the classroom and identifies many ways to make science more appealing as a subject and as a possible career — to all students, but especially to girls and to minority students. Ruta Sevo was program director at the time I worked on this project. She also started volume 2, which the NSF released in 2007. (She has since retired and is enjoying a whole new creative period.)

Here are some selections from accounts in that first book of what engages female and minority students and encourages them to see themselves studying and working in science and technology:

A mother’s influence (from Bring your mother to engineering school, Neda S. Fabris’s project).
Asked what they want to study, most high school girls answer, “I don’t know.” Asked who most influenced their career choices, they usually answer, “my parents”—and for girls, especially, “my mother.” Intentionally or unintentionally, mothers influence their teenage daughters’ career paths, typically know very little about math and science, and tend to perpetuate stereotypes about math and science being men’s work, best avoided by women.

As the daughter of an open-minded mother, Neda Fabris was unaware of research on the subject at the time she launched the Mother-Daughter Academy (an introduction-to-engineering workshop for high school students and their mothers — aimed at encouraging them to see engineering as a viable option for women, to dispel the myth that engineering is physically difficult and unfeminine, to raise the level of scientific knowledge, and to foster a public appreciation of engineering).

But she had noticed that mothers play a significant role in their daughters’ career choices. And as the mother of two small children, Fabris noticed that PTA mothers often showed considerable interest in her career as a mechanical engineer. Several middle-aged women told her, often with a touch of sadness or jealousy, that they wanted to major in science or engineering but were discouraged from doing so by their mothers, counselors, and teachers. They were surprised when she told them that her mother, a foreign language teacher, had strongly encouraged her to study engineering. Fabris’s mother, based on her experience in Sarajevo (Bosnia) in World War II, had concluded that engineering offered a solid chance for survival and prosperity anywhere in the world. Although Fabris was scared to death of engineering, the more she learned, the more she came to enjoy it and agree with her mother. She also became convinced that mothers should be more actively involved in their daughters’ academic and career choices.

At the June 2001 meeting in Denver of the Society of Women Engineers, Fabris accepted the Distinguished Educator Award. Asked about the standing ovation that greeted her acceptance speech, she said, “It is a long way from Sarajevo to Denver.”

(All but one of the daughters who participated in 1996 decided to study engineering, although only a few were considering it before the workshop. At least one mother, intellectually stimulated by the workshop, returned to school to work toward an advanced degree. Ratings were high for all parts of the workshop, with students preferring the hands-on contests and mothers preferring the theory and demonstrations.)

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Girls go to physics camp, Ann Sigford’s project
In 1998, the College of St. Scholastica put 35 Minnesota and Wisconsin seventh graders through a five-day Tools and Technology (TNT) physics camp, designed to engage them and their parents in hands-on physics activities. It was the second in a series of programs to support a cohort of girls as they moved through K–12.

The girls started by building a pine toolbox, and were each given a hammer, pliers, and a six-in-one screwdriver to use at camp and to take home. At first some girls were intimidated by the power drills, but soon they were vying for access to them. Guided by women scientists and instructors, they built large-scale inventions such as roller coasters, water-powered rockets, and motor-controlled planes.

After building their own siege engine — a medieval invention to catapult objects — they launched the head of a Barbie doll, to mimic the practice of launching diseased corpses over castle walls, to introduce disease among the besieged. Nestling Barbie’s head in a sling, they tugged a rope, released a lever, and launched the doll’s head in an arc across the college lawn. Her head was too light. By stuffing it with lead sinkers they made it heavy enough to launch. They also catapulted a motorized plastic pig, eggs, and fruit, learning through experience that potatoes and apples were a good weight for the purpose.

Working together, they learned about inquiry, teamwork, physics principles, and the use of tools. Betsy Fochs, a former pilot and a professor at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, taught them about conductors and transistors during a marathon appliance-smashing session in which they smashed open, tore apart, and studied the inner workings of telephones, VCRs, toaster ovens, TV sets, and parking meters. Exposure to science and women scientists is important at this age, says Fochs, “because it’s the age they start to think it’s not cool to be smart.

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On Barbara Kerr’s project, Targets:
“Most gifted girls are too well-adjusted for their own good. Many gifted girls do not achieve their own goals because their resourcefulness and eagerness to please causes them to compromise their goals many times in the course of their development. They sabotage themselves by taking less challenging coursework than they need, by stopping out of education or career plans, or by losing sight of their goals entirely—and often never aspire to goals commensurate with their abilities. Their strong priorities for maintaining relationships rather than achieving their own goals makes it inevitable that gifted women achieve less than gifted men....

Most of the eminent women Kerr studied had been talented at-risk girls. If so, perhaps the way to identify the gifted girls most likely to achieve their dreams was to look at the troubled brilliant girl who makes A's only in the subjects she cares about deeply and who struggles with many frightening and painful issues —- not at the straight-A achiever on the cheerleading squad.

...Some of the most powerful lessons on counseling minority girls came from the girls themselves. The project investigators had assumed, for example, that girls interested in science would want to be doctors, but rural Navajo girls felt a uniform distaste, even antipathy, toward this career—fearing anatomy classes because of traditional Navajo concerns about seeing or touching the dead. They also assumed that being an accountant would hold little appeal for a lively, sociable girl with math talent, who might prefer being a clinical social worker. But this was not the case for Pima, Navajo, Hopi, and Apache girls. On the reservation, an accountant is a friendly, caring person who often makes “house calls” and who helps the family fill out difficult tax forms resulting in much-needed refunds. A social worker, on the other hand, is someone who takes your children away.

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On Learning communities (from Sandra Madison’s project):
In studying why 60 percent of African American students—but only 12 percent of Chinese students—at the University of California’s Berkeley campus failed freshman calculus, mathematician Uri Treisman had to throw out most traditional hypotheses (weak academic background, poor motivation, low income, and little family support). To his surprise he learned that the key difference between African American and Chinese students was the way they interacted with each other and the university. African American students did not study together; they worked hard, but they strictly separated their social and intellectual lives. Chinese students formed study groups and had study mates. Their ability to form communities and to collaborate was a key to their success.

Treisman’s work at Berkeley provided the foundation from which two initiatives emerged: the Emerging Scholars program at the University of Texas at Austin and the “freshman interest group” (FIG) or learning community. ...The students most at risk of failure at the university, and most in need of social and academic scaffolding, are the students who arrive at the university with the least cultural capital: those from poor or working class families, those who are first-generation college students, those who are academically underprepared or have yet to establish firm career goals. A learning community can provide scaffolding for those students and counteract the feelings of isolation in male-dominated introductory math and science classes that lead many women to opt out of science.


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From Creeping toward exclusivity (Cecily Selby’s project):
As Nobel laureate Dudley Hershbach put it, "We are creeping toward inclusivity in science.” More women are enrolling in science and engineering studies, but they drop out at proportionately higher rates than men do. Self-interest, civil rights legislation, and competition for talented women have compelled measurable progress in government and the private sector but the elite colleges and research universities have proven virtually impervious to change. Science and society require the broad talent and wisdom that can be assured only by increasing diversity in the workforce and workplace. And the shared perspective of the conference was that diversity doesn’t just happen; it must be abetted by substantive changes in the attitudes, policies, and practices that inform how we educate the workforce and how the science workplace is managed....

To retain women and minority professionals, what makes a difference is collegiality, credit for contributions, supportive mentoring and recognition by peers and senior colleagues (regardless of gender), opportunities for advancement, visibility, and leadership, and a balance between career, family, and personal life....

Women often delay publishing their research until they have the “whole picture,” so they tend to publish less often than men do, which reduces their chances for promotion and tenure. Harvard chemistry professor Cynthia Friend urged women to publish data that is “interesting” and provokes questions instead of waiting until they have all the answers.

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From Sissies, tomboys, and gender identity (Susan Cavin’s project):
Sociology generally defines “gender identity” as “socially constructed notions of masculinity and femininity.” Survey results revealed that women enrolled in engineering felt they had to hide both their femaleness and their femininity to succeed in engineering. Looking and acting more masculine—to blend in with the boys—helped women survive. Students who were pregnant and could no longer hide being a woman felt especially vulnerable and were not taken seriously in the engineering classroom.

Women appear freer about crossing gender identity lines than men. It appears more girls were allowed to play with boys’ toys than boys were allowed to play with girls’ toys. Few future engineers liked only girls’ toys, as children, even if they were girls. In all disciplines, the majority of girls liked both girls’ and boys’ toys. (Parents and toy manufacturers, take note: Provide more girls’ toys that teach the same math/science/spatial skills as boys’ toys do.)

Tomboyishness exists across all disciplines, but the incidence of tomboys increases in the traditionally masculine fields of the “hard sciences” and declines in the traditionally female fields of the “soft sciences” and the liberal arts. A masculine identity favors females in engineering science.

Of androgynous men, 80 percent identified as “neither masculine nor feminine”; of androgynous women, 80 percent identified as “both masculine and feminine”—a major finding that held true for both faculty and students. People’s gender or biological sex seems to affect even the type of androgyny they choose.

Androgyny among men varies by race: 83 percent of androgynous white and Asian males preferred boys’ toys, compared with only 57 percent of blacks and Hispanics. No Asian male played exclusively with girls’ toys, but more Asian males played with both boys’ and girls’ toys than any other racial group. In this study, whites appear less rigid about girls’ gender identity than people of color. No black woman in this study was ever called a sissy."

An unexpected bestseller for the National Science Foundation, New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering went through its entire first printing in five weeks and then a second and final printing. Within a short space of time, more than 103,000 people had downloaded the book in PDF format. Fascinating findings from 225 NSF-funded projects on how girls learn best and on what you can do to improve science learning for girls, women, and minority students. Author: Pat McNees (drawing on what the principal investigators had learned and reported). Publishers: If you'd like to issue a reprint of the book, let me know. The discussion engendered by Larry Summers' unfortunate comments at Harvard have stirred up even more interest in the subject than there was when the book became an NSF bestseller.

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"A college course on how to take apart a computer and put it back together attracted 300 male students and no young women -- until the announcement describing the course changed, to say that the computers they worked on would later be given to needy schools. Then the women signed up."
~ From New Formulas for America's Workforce, by Pat McNees for the National Science Foundation

First-Place Sweep by American Girls at First Google Science Fair (Kenneth Chang, NY Times Science News, 7-18-11). More than 10,000 students from 91 countries entered Google's first science fair, and the winner's prize included $50,000 toward her college studies. "Girls swept all three age categories in the competition, a contrast to generations past when women were largely excluded from the science world," writes Chang.