A closer look at girls' interest in science

As high school students cluster around lab tables and watch flasks foam, some of them yawn, but others dream of turning science experiments into careers. More often than most people expect, those dreamers are African-American girls.

Right where conventional wisdom sees a "double disadvantage" of race and gender, Sandra Hanson sees aspiration and achievement. Dr. Hanson, a sociology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, found in a recent study that African-American girls outpace both white girls and African-American boys on a variety of measures, such as access to science courses and positive attitudes toward science careers.

The study is based on data from the US Department of Education's National Educational Longitudinal Study, which surveyed eighth- through 12th-graders about a range of educational issues. Hanson and graduate student Elizabeth Palmer Johnson went beyond that data in an effort to explain their findings.

"I needed to look historically, look into what some of the black scholars of family and the gender systems in that community have been writing about for years," Hanson says. Unlike the prevalent attitude among white families, she found, working in demanding fields like science is not seen by African-Americans as conflicting with being a good mother.

Not only do black families more often provide working mothers as role models, she says, but they also tend to invest more in their daughters' education than in their sons'.

Because their families often sacrifice to ensure they get a good education, African-American girls who want to pursue science careers tend to be motivated by a desire to give back to their community, Hanson says.

Despite this interest level, many African-American women steer away from science in college. High school programs have become "democratic enough that people who do have talent can be seen" and can do well, Hanson says. But she's concerned that in college science programs and beyond, discrimination still marginalizes minorities and women.

"I'm trying to get the word out there that there's a huge talent base here that I think has been overlooked," says Hanson, whose study was published in December by the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. "When you leave out half the talent base, you are leaving out half the good ideas and creativity."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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