50th Edition, Education

Girls in science today: a modern perspective

By Denebola
Published: February 2011

By Leigh Alon, Volume 50
February 15, 2011

In comparison to his days teaching science in the 70s, science department head Charles Hurwitz has noticed a significant shift in the number of girls taking AP science courses at South. Today, girls make up 53 percent of AP Biology classes, 37 percent of AP Physics classes, and 27percent of AP Chemistry classes, up from about one to three girls enrolled in each of these classes 40 years ago.
Jordan Kraus, AP Biology and honors neurobiology teacher, has also seen a dramatic shift from the days when the female captain of the science team had to be persuaded to enroll in AP Physics  where she would likely be the only girl in. Hema Roychowdhury, AP Physics teacher of three years, has noticed a significant trend even in her short time here. Her first year only three of her 29 students were girls.
“We certainly have a lot of [female] role models in science teaching here and that’s certainly changed,” Hurwitz said regarding what may have sparked the shift. While Hurwitz believes he has always hired the most qualified candidates for jobs in the science department, he has “made a concerted effort to hire women teachers.”
He does, however, admit that the shifts in societal views over the years may have just as much to do with why more girls are enrolled in higher level science courses.
“High school students now have many women scientists that they can look up to, and in addition to changes in society, more female teachers make a big difference,” he said.
Kraus believes that in addition to society’s different expectations of girls, the particular way in which certain subjects used to be taught often affected what disciplines appealed to certain genders.
“There is a tremendous amount of research that demonstrates that men and women learn subjects differently with different strengths,” she said. Therefore, material should be presented in multiple ways so it appeals to each gender’s different strengths.
“When we talk about individuals there are exceptions, but on population levels there are significant differences [in the strengths each gender possesses],” Kraus said. “Schools have been slow to catch on and adapt to the differences.”
As an example, Kraus remembers her daughter’s first grade teacher, who taught reading and writing through fantasy stories, an approach that generally appealed more to girls than boys, which meant many boys did not fare well in this critical stage of learning. Today, though, Kraus believes there are still many ways in which the American education system in math and science favors one gender over another.
“It’s most awful in high stakes testing, like the MCAS and SAT, two tests which reflect male bias,” she said. While these tests often aim to evaluate mathematical reasoning, many of the questions are posed as word problems. Since females have been shown to be much stronger at computational problems, Kraus believes such tests put women at a disadvantage. Roychowdhury has not personally made any concerted efforts to accommodate girls,  but she does her best to “encourage all students” to achieve.
Senior Charlotte Sall, who is currently enrolled in Roychowdhury’s AP Physics class, was wary of signing up for the class, but for her, having a female teacher has been a tremendous asset.
“I definitely feel like a minority. Sometimes I feel like a lot of the material comes innately to other students, many of which are male, that I have to work harder to learn.
But Dr. Roychowdhury is an incredible teacher and that is ultimately what has convinced me to stick with such a tough subject,” she said. Math department head Steven Rattendi, on the other hand, has not seen the large gender gap during his time at South that many members of the science department faculty have.
“Today at least, the discrepancy is not the case,” he said. According to him, the large shift in enrollment levels of girls in higher level math classes is not due to any concerted efforts or programs at the high school level.
“It is more about shifts in societies and overall thoughts,” he said. He does add, however, that there has been more attention paid to learning at the elementary school level “in making sure girls are doing well.”
Kraus agrees that making efforts towards gender equality in schools at an early age is very important. “By high school we are unraveling half a lifetime of stuff that’s come from parents and teachers,” she said.
While the math and science departments at South have made extraordinary gains towards making sure girls are not at a disadvantage, a gender gap still exists, especially in the more quantitative science subjects. Sall does not, however, attribute it to any gender bias within the department. Hurwitz believes that although the gender divide is not gone, South is on a very positive
“In certain fields we are not there yet. But we are getting better,” Hurwitz said. “I want every girl not to feel there are road blocks but to feel she has an even chance.”

Read more

Like it? Share it!


Copyright © Denebola | The Official School Newspaper of Newton South High School | 140 Brandeis Road, Newton, MA 02459.
Site designed by Chenzhe Cao.