CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — 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.
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.
But they share something else. Most of the applicants, who wrote essays about what they would invent to make life easier or more enjoyable, described inventions that would benefit others, not themselves.
Karyn wrote about a "voice-operated form-fitting suction and massage glove" for her grandmother: "My grandmother always says, 'If I could just get these hands working, I could do more things.' She was very upset when she broke one of her favorite tea mugs because she couldn't hold onto it. This is why I think my glove invention would be a great one."
"It just knocks my socks off," Finn says of the altruism the students exhibit - an altruism science might benefit from. As the girls inspect the innards of computers and make ice cream with liquid nitrogen, Finn looks on, hoping something will click.
Ms. Thaller, who dedicates most of her time to education for NASA's Space Infrared Telescope Facility, cringes when she hears educators generalize about kids based on gender.
But she does notice behaviors that tend to separate boys from girls. "It's not that girls perform worse or seem less interested," she says, "but I have noticed a real trend in them getting more quiet and introverted, and I see that in late middle school."
Thaller, who taught accelerated science in middle school for six years, realized one day that she seemed to be favoring the boys. "The girls were in the back of the room, breaking off into groups and getting things done quietly," she says. "They were efficient and talented, and their work was just as good, but the guys were more aggressive, vying for my attention more."
Statistics do point to differences between boys and girls. The average SAT math score for girls, for instance, is 35 points lower than it is for males. A deeper look, however, reveals another trend: Among students who took an accelerated math course before the test, the 35-point difference disappears. Fewer girls, the numbers indicate, actually take the advanced math courses, thus their average score suffers.
Teachers, and the industry as a whole, Thaller says, will have to make science more inviting to all, especially if they want to draw a variety of thinkers. Science, after all, isn't only proving the establishment wrong, she says: "It takes team work."
That kind of work is stressed at the EXITE camp. By Wednesday, the girls are finally getting comfortable together. With the help of volunteers from IBM, MIT, and other neighboring institutions, they've built virtual bridges, programmed robots, and used Venn diagrams to get to know one another.
Today they are a noisy bunch, racing to see which group finishes the Lego robot first. "Oh, no, we messed up," Imani squeals from her space on the floor. She squints through her glasses at the printout and instructs her two workers to "put that side in the middle of that."
"You're making no sense," Karyn says through her braids. "Yes, I am," Imani retorts, then grows quiet. "Whatever. I'm sorry." Boss Ruth sits Buddha-style to Imani's left, arms crossed as Jay-Z crackles through her headphones. When they complete the robot one of the workers, Nicole, clasps her hands together. "You all are good bosses," she beams.
These are activities where the girls can learn about science through social interaction, Finn says from her spot in the corner.
"This morning, a volunteer mentor was helping out," she says. "One of the campers showed up and dragged her father over because she wanted him to meet her mentor. Which opens the father's eyes. He sees it's from a personal connection. Which is maybe how girls are wired."