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California educators aim to get more girls into science classes, careers
Source: Stephen Wall




Gordon Bourns, Chairman and CEO of Bourns, Inc. talks to local high school girls Nov. 17 about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math to encourage them to pursue science careers at Bourns Technology Center in Riverside. Stan Lim/Staff Photographer

They pretended to be computer scientists, learned about driverless cars and built space towers from spaghetti, string and masking tape.

The 200 female high school students got a taste of science careers at a recent workshop in Riverside, inspiring them to try to poke more holes in the glass ceiling.

Such efforts to get more girls and young women to pursue science-related jobs are getting a lift from new state guidelines that seek more gender equity in science education.

“It’s a male-dominated field,” said John Robertson, instructional services specialist for the Riverside Unified School District, which organized the recent girls-only event at Bourns Technology Center in Riverside that featured motivational speakers, exhibits and hands-on activities. “We have to start doing something to make sure these young ladies are exposed to and have the opportunity to explore their interests.”

A focus of the new Science Framework for California’s kindergarten through 12th grade public schools, adopted in early November, is expanding the number of women in science-related careers. Like a road map, the framework describes how teachers will put into practice the state’s Next Generation Science Standards, approved in 2013, that stress critical thinking, problem solving and project-based learning.

The guidelines, which took nearly three years to develop and generated more than 3,000 public comments, will be rolled out across the state next year. In 2018, the state Board of Education is set to adopt textbooks and other materials that match the standards and framework. A new online pilot science test will be offered in spring in grades five, eight and in one high school grade.

“This is going to be an earth-shattering difference in science,” said Michael Towne, a physics and engineering teacher at Orange Vista High School in Perris. “It’s going to change science from a noun, as in the things you learn, to a verb, as in the things you do.”

Students will do things that scientists do: Ask questions, gather data, make observations, investigate phenomena and communicate ideas, he said.

For the first time, the state guidelines include strategies to spark girls’ interest in science.

Women make up about half the country’s workforce, but hold less than one quarter of science, technology, engineering and math jobs, federal statistics show. Females are especially underrepresented in physical, Earth, engineering and computer sciences.

The gap hurts the country’s ability to compete against other nations and places women at an economic disadvantage. Women in science-related jobs earn on average one-third more than their peers in nonscience jobs, U.S. Department of Commerce data show.

One way to improve the situation is to give girls — especially those who are low-income and members of minority groups — experiences that make them feel smart and capable, the new state guidelines state.

Cassie Bennett, a first-year biology teacher at North High School in Riverside, tries to make science relevant to girls’ daily lives. She relies less on lectures, textbooks and worksheets and more on labs and group work. They have to build their own towers using scissors, paper and tape on the first day of school, similar to the activity her students did at the Bourns symposium.

“Science traditionally has been very white and very male,” Bennett said. “Getting them to do this stuff is phenomenal.”

The new framework updates the content kids learn and links concepts between different subjects and grade levels. It includes a broader discussion of climate change, for example, and calls for students to do hands-on activities or investigations rather than memorizing facts.

Science isn’t just about doing fun experiments, but using thinking and reasoning to weigh evidence and draw conclusions, said Gale Sinatra, associate dean for research and a professor of education and psychology at USC’s Rossier School of Education.

“Why is it that 98 percent of scientists think that the Earth is warming?” Sinatra said. “Students shouldn’t believe or disbelieve it based on opinion but evaluate the evidence the way scientists do.”

A big challenge will be training teachers, many of whom don’t have science degrees and will struggle because they lack materials reflecting the new standards and framework, said Towne, who is a lecturer at UC Riverside as well as an Orange Vista teacher.

“You have many teachers who are vaguely aware of this who are asking, ‘What am I supposed to use to teach this?’” Towne said.

He applauded the focus on getting more underrepresented groups, including girls, low-income students and minorities, excited about science.

Women science teachers can serve as positive role models and break down gender stereotypes from media and popular culture, according to the new state guidelines.

Raven Hebert, a chemistry teacher at King High School in Riverside, said many girls think they can’t be good at math or science.

“They think of science as sitting all day in a lab wearing a lab coat and it’s boring,” said Hebert. “I encourage them to look outside the classroom to see how chemistry is influencing their lives.”

New state guidelines encourage teachers to give girls leadership roles in group work and ensure they receive the same amount of attention as boys.

Another way to inspire girls is promoting science and engineering fairs that reward them for excellence. Several girls won prizes for outstanding projects at recent competitions, said Angela Wolf, coordinator of curriculum and instruction for the San Jacinto Unified School District.

“It’s being able to give students and females the opportunity to experience the science; that’s where the fire ignites,” she said.

Riverside Unified’s Robertson said the trend is moving in a positive direction locally.

Enrollment of freshmen women in UC Riverside’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences has topped 50 percent and has grown four of the past five years.

A UCR administrator attributes the trend in part to a recruiting program that sends female undergraduate science majors into local middle and high schools. The college students talk to girls about health, career opportunities, bullying, self-esteem and other issues, said Michael McKibben, divisional dean of student academic affairs and associate professor of geology at UCR’s science college.

Young girls also visit the campus and meet female faculty who run science labs and take field trips to an environmental company run by a female CEO, he said.

Many of the science ambassadors, as the mentors are called, have similar backgrounds as the girls and share how they overcame academic and social obstacles.

“You don’t see a lot of girls in the science industry,” said Marina Sanchez, a 15-year-old student at North. “It’s like a label. It’s harder work, so it must be for men.”

Sanchez and three classmates competed against other groups to build the tallest tower at the Bourns event. Their structure collapsed when it couldn’t handle the weight of a small doll-like figurine at the top.

“We won in spirit,” Sanchez said.

Another group of girls talked to Bourns’ facilities director Brad Werking, who showed them how to operate the company’s energy management system.

Macy Duffy, a sophomore at Poly High School in Riverside, expressed awe after listening to how sensors control lights, heating and air conditioning inside the building.

“Girls usually don’t think about these types of jobs,” said Duffy, 15. “I’d love to be taught this.”


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