Where are the future scientists?
Kids' lack of interest troubles the industry
Science needs an image makeover. Not that lab coats, calculators, and formaldehyde were ever in, but the dwindling number of students who pursue a career in the field has executives at many sci-tech companies scrambling to find their future top thinkers.Skip to next paragraph
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In recent years, the answer has been to search for bright minds among girls, who continue to be underrepresented. Studies have pointed to a gender gap in math, science, and technology, and the media have covered the topic relentlessly.
But lately, boys are almost as likely to look elsewhere for careers. The real problem facing science may not be the gender gap at all, but that the industry typically attracts, and rewards, a specific type of behavior, one that leaves many - and often girls in particular - avoiding it altogether.
"Scientists are opinionated people," says Michelle Thaller, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "The point is to prove the establishment wrong. And that's the single biggest challenge facing women in science: You're expected to act aggressively, and nobody trains you for that."
IBM, among others, has caught on to this dynamic. It designed a computer camp with low-income middle school girls in mind, but the question has shifted from "How do we draw a diverse population?" to, simply, "How do we make science attractive?" Known as EXITE - "Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering" - the camp has expanded in its five years to 30 locations, including South Africa and Chile. The task isn't simply to teach science, but to learn how to teach it.
According to the brochure, Karyn Greene is supposed to be an "aspiring technologist." Hand-picked among the brightest of her Boston-area peers for the EXITE summer camp, the eighth-grader stands out among the gaggle of 30 giggling girls with her quick wit and bright smile.
The problem is, she'd rather be a lawyer.
"Science is boring; I want to argue with people, just like Reese Witherspoon," Karyn says, referring to the actress who played a Harvard Law School student in the film "Legally Blonde." Standing in the glittery, high-ceilinged headquarters of IBM, just down the road from Harvard, Karyn tugs at her braids - the product of five hours in a salon the night before - and sneaks a glance at her mother. "I thought I'd like astronomy, but the teacher made it boring," she insists.
That Karyn fancies pretty-in-pink over lab-rat-with-microscope is no surprise to the science world. The real puzzle: How to pique her curiosity. That it takes so much effort speaks to the preconceptions many kids have already formed about science.
"Even if girls are doing well, they're still not choosing to go into this career area," says Cathleen Finn, community relations program manager for IBM in Cambridge. "We have to work on breaking down the stereotypes about what it means to be a technical woman."
What the camp must do, Ms. Finn says, is expose the students to role models. Each girl is assigned a mentor at the beginning of the week, a professional woman they correspond with throughout the year. The idea is to get these girls to see that science careers are not only open to them, but every bit as cool as anything Reese Witherspoon can do. "If they don't see someone in that role, it's like, 'Well, how do I do it?' " Finn says.
Many of the students at the EXITE camp have been selected because their teachers see a particular curiosity, a spark that special attention and a nurturing environment might kindle into something truly great.