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Practicing What They Preach: Encouraging girls in math & science

Published 06/02/2010 12:00 AM

Girls are afraid of math and science.

Girls aren't as interested in math and science as boys.

Boys are better at math and science than girls.

Those statements are common stereotypes of young women. But Victoria Brennan, Kristin Lester and Kimberly Blake, all women who hold doctoral degrees in either math or science, belie them. The three helped create, and now lead, the STEM program (science, technology, ecology and mathematics) at Mitchell College in New London.

And Kara Reitz, Jillian Ramos, Ami Dhyani and Yosha Dhungana also belie those stereotypes. The four young women are students at the Science & Technology Magnet High School (STMHS) in New London and are taking college-level science courses (offered through a partnership with Mitchell).

Reitz, who is a senior, has been accepted at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and plans to major in neuroscience. She hopes to attend Harvard medical school and specialize in women's health. Ramos, Dhyani and Dhungana are juniors at STMHS and have similar plans. Through the partnership with Mitchell, they can earn up to 30 college credits in STEM subjects.

Still, women are not entering STEM-related fields in large numbers. In fact, while women earned almost 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees in 2006, they earned 20 percent or fewer of those degrees in engineering, computer science and physics.

This, despite that there's no longer a difference in average math performance between girls and boys in the general school population and that in high school, girls and boys earn an equal number of math and science credits, with girls actually earning higher average grades.

That's according to an article in the Winter 2010 issue of Outlook magazine (published by the American Association of University Women) entitled, "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics," which discusses a recent AAUW report with the same title.

But here in southeastern Connecticut, Drs. Brennan, Lester and Blake are doing their best to increase that number by reaching out to area girls in a variety of ways.

All three are involved in the third annual G2O Girl's and Technology Expo, being held Friday, June 4, at Mitchell College. Sponsored by the Connecticut Women's Education and Legal Fund, Mitchell College, the New London chapter of AAUW, and Dominion, the G2O Expo invites middle school girls from the region to participate in a day of interactive workshops with mostly female scientists.

Brennan is teaching (for the third year in row) college-level chemistry at the magnet school. Lester takes Daisy Scouts (girls ages 5 to 7) on outings at Mitchell Beach where a number of environmental projects are in progress. And both Blake and Lester are involved in the New London Environmental Educator's Coalition.

Brennan recalls a love of building things and wondering how things worked when she was a child in the early 1960s. She credits her third- grade teacher at West End Elementary School in Lynbrook, N.Y., for encouraging her love of science.

"Even though she taught all subjects, Mrs. Derk was a science teacher at heart and she was a woman," Brennan says. "Because of her, I never thought I couldn't be a scientist."

It wasn't until graduate school that she faced discrimination.

"There were no women in the department at the time [at the State University of New York at Buffalo]," she recalls. "And about two thirds of the men were my father's age and they made it clear to me that they thought it was no place for a woman."

But she persevered and earned her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in cell and molecular biology.

Blake remembers watching ants as a child.

"I'd throw bread crumbs down to attract them. I wondered what they said to each other and how they knew where they were going."

From a young age she wanted to be a doctor.

"I actually knew one woman doctor; she was the daughter of friends of my parents. She had gone to Mount Holyoke so that's where I wanted to go."

She also remembers hearing comments like "Girls can't do science."

"And so I said, 'You just watch me.' I took as much math and science as I could. In high school I had a wonderful advanced biology class in which we operated on live mice. If the mouse lived, you passed the test. And yes, my mouse lived."

Although she chose not to become a physician (she says she struggled with college chemistry and her male professor wasn't willing to work with her), Blake went on to receive a bachelor's degree in biological sciences from Mt. Holyoke in 1972. She eventually earned her master's in environmental education from Fairfield University and a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences, specializing in developmental biology, from the University of Connecticut Health Center.

She says the death of her brother from malignant melanoma in 1986 is what prompted her to pursue her Ph.D.

Lester, the youngest of the three, wasn't at all interested in science as a child.

"I went to Catholic schools and didn't hear about the theory of evolution until I went to college!" she says.

She recalls doing a report on pollution for a high school environmental class.

"I became an undercover reporter and decided to expose pollution right behind the school," she says. "I went back there and took pictures of all the garbage and barrels of junk."

After studying English at SUNY Oswego, she joined the U.S. Coast Guard.

"I worked as an oil spill response specialist. And that's when I realized that I was in love with toxins and poisons," she jokes. She went on to obtain a master's from the Environmental Coastal and Ocean Science program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and a doctorate in marine science from the University of South Florida.

So how can parents, teachers and girls themselves not only encourage their interest in mathematics and science but pursue it as a career?

"Trust what you see!" says Lester, who adds that what gets in the way of more girls pursuing science is teachers, or anyone that "finds a way to shut down a student's observations. What you can see matters and you need to trust your observations. Girls are more likely to let their voices and instinct be shut down."

She encourages girls to raise their hands and to understand there is no such thing as a dumb question.

Brennan says finding the right role model or mentor is important.

"If you want to be like the person who is teaching you, you're more likely to wrap your head around the subject they're teaching. A good role model will encourage you!"

"Be more flexible!" says Blake. While science has its rules and structure, women tend to work better in less rigid environments. She recalls being told, "you need to get your priorities straight" by a male colleague in her Ph.D. program when she needed time to deal with the death of her mother-in-law.

"Flexibility is a strength women bring to the sciences because our life experiences show us that you can't have everything your way."

All three women believe girls should take as many math and sciences classes as they can, as young as they can. They also suggest that girls check out clubs and activities geared to their scientific interests.