Science called a pipeline that ‘leaks’ women and girls

Mercy engineering design students, from left, Claire Curry, Olivia Waldridge, Jill Vorreiter and Julianne Wise worked together inside Mammoth Cave last October where they piloted a robotic submarine, in the foreground, through an uncharted part of the cave’s waterways. (File Photo Special to The Record)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
Dr. Sandra L. Hanson, a professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington. D.C., compared the field of science to a pipeline that leaks women and girls.

Hanson presented a lecture entitled “Girls in Science: Why So Few” at the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library Aug. 8.

The sociologist said the “evidence is overwhelming” that boys and girls are equally talented and equally interested in science early on. “Over time, girls get chilled out of science and they don’t feel as welcomed. There’s no difference that holds water in terms of explaining the eventual sorting out of boys and girls in the system.”

Hanson asked the 50 or so participants in the lecture to think of a “science pipeline” that starts in pre-school and goes through grade school, high school, college, post secondary school and ends in science occupations. That science pipeline, she said, has many more girls in it at the beginning than at the end.
A common excuse — that there aren’t enough women qualified for jobs in science — can no longer be used, she said.

She pointed out, for example, that 22 percent of doctoral degrees in engineering are earned by women. Yet, she said, women are still being “denied jobs” and sometimes are “ignored and harassed” when they do find jobs in science.

There are several factors, she said, that cause women and girls to be “chilled out” of science. Among them are:

  • Peers in the classroom who make it harder for minorities and women because they do not want them there.
  • The perception of who a scientist is. There’s a test called “Draw-a-Scientist”, said Hanson. Very seldom do people, including science teachers, draw women. Students, she said, tend to draw the same image as their teachers.
    She said she’s heard from minority girls who lamented the fact that none of their teachers look like them.
    “Children can only imagine themselves doing things that they see people like themselves doing,” said Hanson.
  • Science text books are not representative of the population. Most of the scientists in text books are white males, which makes it hard for females and minorities to identify with them.
  • The Media also plays a role, said Hanson, noting that few TV shows portray a positive image of scientists. The characters are usually represented as eccentric and socially inept, said Hanson. Some shows also perpetuate “stratification within science,” where women are shown working in the “lower status areas,” such as biology, while the men are portrayed as physicists, for example.

Hanson said that coming from a Catholic background, she sees the lack of girls and women in science as a social justice issue.
“It’s not just to make it a situation where one of the most important areas of education and occupation is limited in terms of who can enter,” she said. “When I talk about science I talk about common good. It’s to the benefit of the common good to have equal access.”

She noted that science degrees are amongst some of the most prestigious. The people doing this work are the “new elite in terms of the power and influence that they have,” she said.

Hanson said in general, the U.S. is not doing well in science. When comparing math and science scores globally, this country is behind.

“We need to do better science in general. If you have better science for girls it will make better science in general,” she said. “You are not playing to some weakness when you make science better for girls. You are making it better for everyone. I strongly believe that.”

Doing science better is something the Archdiocese of Louisville schools are striving for, said Donna Brown, technology curriculum consultant for the archdiocese.
Brown said overall test scores indicate that students in Catholic schools are doing above average in science.

In an effort to make science better, Brown said the archdiocese has adapted science text books. As of the 2016-2017 school year, Catholic school students use books that foster “inquiry-based” learning, she said, adding, the curriculum is more “hands on, minds on.”

This new approach has students much more “engaged.” They are working with scientific concepts and not just memorizing and repeating facts, Brown said. As a result, she anticipates, that kids “will learn science better” and that the archdiocese will see the results.

She noted too that some Catholic schools are moving toward an “integrated curriculum,” where science is no longer studied in isolation, but incorporated into all areas of study.

As far as how girls in the archdiocese are doing in science, Brown noted that last year Mercy Academy became the only all-girl school in the nation to be STEM certified.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Mercy Academy has been at the forefront of emphasizing STEM disciplines locally, with classes and extracuricular opportunities that include robotics, architecture and 3D printing technology. Amy Elstone, Mercy’s principal, said she’s seen students’ interest in STEM courses soar.

“It was important for us to give them excellent STEM classes, so they could see where their interests lie,” she said.

Last year and again this year, the school made headlines when a team of Mercy students made discoveries in Mammoth Cave National Park. Using underwater robots, the students have explored and mapped new parts of the cave system. These findings also were featured on the Public Broadcasting Service NewsHour’s series America the Beautiful.

Elstone said a group of Mercy students will work with Dr. Kate Bulinski of Bellarmine University this fall to research fossils at the Falls of the Ohio State Park. Mercy students will use underwater robots in the research just as they did at Mammoth Cave, she said.

Older generations of women remember the doors to the STEM field being “hard to open,” said Elstone. She doesn’t believe it will be that way for Mercy girls. “Our girls will enter confident and feel they belong there.”

It’s important, she added, for Mercy to be “purposeful” with its STEM offerings. “Not all girls are interested in STEM, but they’ll be exposed to it.”

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