PICTURE a second-grade class on a field trip to a science museum, poised before an exhibit on magnetism: The boys run up and play with the controls, while the girls remain in the back, watching. This scene, repeated daily across the United States, is at the heart of a pressing educational problem, according to a growing number of scientists, educators, and government officials. In a world that is increasingly scientific and technical, America needs more scientists and engineers, but more than half the student population is taking itself out of the picture by not even trying.
The problem, says Marsha Lakes Matyas of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), can be traced to something that she calls ``the coatrack syndrome.''
``The family will go to the science museum, Dad will help the kids do the experiments, and Mom will hold the coats,'' says Dr. Matyas, who directs the AAAS project on women and science.
The national problem is compounded by a decline in the size of the college-age population. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States will decline 19 percent, according to the US Census Bureau. Although the population is expected to increase slowly after that, by the year 2010 one in every three 18-year-olds will be black or Hispanic, minorities that thus far have been largely excluded from studying science.
Last year, a congressionally mandated task force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology concluded that if the US is to maintain its position as a world leader in science, more women and minority students must be attracted to the traditionally white, male fields of science and engineering.
What is happening instead, says Beverly F. Porter, a statistician at the American Institute of Physics, is that as fewer Americans come forward to fill spots at universities, those places are being taken up by foreign students. Between 1975 and 1987, says Ms. Porter, the number of physics graduate students with US citizenship at American colleges steadily decreased, while the number of foreign graduate students sharply rose.
Indeed, she says, the growing number of women receiving doctorates in biology and chemistry is almost entirely due to foreign women. Only half those students will pursue their careers in the US, Porter estimates.
A similar trend has been observed at the undergraduate level. ``The proportion of US freshmen choosing science and engineering majors has been wobbling downward,'' the task force reports. ``The drop has been little noticed because many foreign students have been enrolling in these fields.''
``People are becoming more aware that there is a problem, particularly with minority students,'' says Matyas. ``A lot of people think that the problem with girls is solved. It is far from solved ... In fact, we are backsliding.''
After a decade of steady increases, the percentage of women choosing to major in engineering peaked at 17 in 1982, says Betty Vetter, executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, a nonprofit research group in Washington. ``Since then, it has been between 15 and 16 percent every year.''
Researchers believe almost unanimously that the problem isn't that girls aren't as good at math and science as boys - it's that they don't even try.
``It starts from the time they are little,'' says Marilee Jones, associate director of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ``Girls are not perceived as being scientists, little kindergarten scientists. Little boys are.''
Girls, Ms. Jones says, ``get all those little cues, they get all the social stuff, and by the time they reach high school, they get discouraged from taking the math courses, and automatically they [are] not qualified to come to a place like this, even if they change their minds at the last moment.''
This all happens, says Jacquelynne S. Eccles, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, ``despite the fact that females, in general, get better grades in math and science than males.''
For the past 12 years, Dr. Eccles has been studying a collection of 15 school districts in southeastern Michigan - from the inner cities to farming communities - following students from fifth grade through the first year of college. She is attempting to learn how student, teacher, and parent attitudes about math and science have affected the pupils' courses of study.
``The role that parents and teachers seem to play is underestimating the girls' potential in math and science ... and being less likely to encourage girls who have talent in math and science to go on, develop those talents and skills, and consider occupation in those fields.''
Eccles found that girls consistently had more confidence in their English ability than in their mathematics skills. This was true, she says, even among girls who were enrolled in advanced math courses.
``These data suggest that most females underestimate their math ability as they get older and feel increasingly more confident about their English abilities,'' she says. Eccles and her co-workers traced these beliefs to the words and actions of the students' parents. By looking at the differences between parents of boys and parents of girls who performed equally well in mathematics, Eccles has arrived at some surprising conclusions:
Parents of girls think that their children have to work harder in mathematics than parents of boys do, even when teachers of the students think both groups are working equally hard.
Parents of girls think it is more important that their daughters take subjects like English and American history than courses in mathematics.
When boys do well in mathematics, their parents usually ascribe the performance to natural talent and skill. When girls do well, parents are more inclined to praise their daughter's ``hard work.''
When students go on to college, Eccles says, ``the girls who had confidence in their [mathematical] ability but placed low value on math didn't enroll in advanced math classes.''
Almost paradoxically, boys who similarly placed low value on math nevertheless enrolled in the courses. ``It's because boys get the message that [math] is important, even if they don't think that it is important, from their parents and their counselors, and enroll in the advanced math classes. The girls don't get that message. If they say they want to drop it, the counselors say `OK.'''
Eccles's findings are making their rounds through the education community. ``It's extremely useful information that people ought to have and don't,'' says Ms. Vetter in Washington. ``Nothing is going to change ... until parents and citizens and the whole nation recognize that our girls are not inferior to our boys and that they are people we need to use. We have to stop putting them down and encourage them in the same way that we encourage boys.''
Doing so, concluded the task force, is going to take the combined efforts of parents, educators, and even the news media.
``Parents can help out a lot,'' says Matyas, by ``taking the kids to science museums and making sure that the girls participate, too.'' Avoid the coatrack syndrome, Matyas says. ``It's as important for kids to see that Mom is competent in math and science as it is important for them to see that Dad is competent.''
Parents also need to make sure that their daughters get the chance to do science and math activities. For instance, even though the Girl Scouts now have science, math, engineering, and computer science badges, troop members often don't pursue them, Matyas notes.
At the junior high school level, parents should make sure that their children know and do their homework. They should also ``find out when tests are. You don't have to have any science or math expertise to make sure that your kids have a good night's sleep the night before and have breakfast before-hand, yet the difference on test scores is dramatic.''
Some schools are now experimenting with the idea of automatically enrolling students in college-track math and science courses unless a parent or guidance counselor says otherwise. (Most schools typically assign students to lower-level courses by default.) ``The school systems are finding that the difference is tremendous,'' Matyas says. ``People who would never single out a young woman and say, `She's talented enough to do algebra,' would never say, `She shouldn't do algebra.'''
But more than anything else, parents have to keep their expectations high.