Lab Coats Aren't Just for Guys: Changing Girls' Views of Sci-Tech

In the physics classes she teaches at the all-girls Winsor School in Boston, Ileana Jones begins each term by giving her students an unusual assignment: Sketch a picture of a scientist.

"Almost always they draw a male with glasses in a lab coat," Ms. Jones says, adding, "They're afraid of the subject and afraid they won't be able to do well."

By addressing these stereotypes and fears, Jones hopes to change girls' perceptions that science and technology are primarily for men. She wants young women to realize that they, too, can pursue careers in these fields.

Jones is one of a growing number of teachers trying to close a well-documented gender gap that keeps women trailing men in technological competency. As recently as 1993, males accounted for more than 70 percent of computer and information science majors and 85 percent of engineering majors in college, according to the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.

These gaps cast shadows on the future work force. By 2010, one-fourth of all new jobs in the United States will be technologically oriented, according to the National Science Foundation. Women will account for a majority of labor force entrants in the coming decade, making it essential that they be prepared for these jobs.

As one way of giving girls better preparation, 120 teachers from the US, Canada, and Australia gathered at Wellesley College last week for a first-of-its-kind conference on girls and technology. The three-day forum was sponsored by the National Coalition of Girls' Schools in Concord, Mass.

"These are the people who are going to influence the girls of today and tomorrow," says Whitney Ransome, executive director of the coalition. "If they don't understand what the issues are and get in step with this technology pathway, girls will be left behind."

Those issues often begin with differences in boys' and girls' attitudes toward technology.

"Boys want machines that will give them power," says Cornelia Brunner, associate director of the Center for Children and Technology in New York, which has conducted numerous studies. "Girls fantasized about household helpers. They wished for machines that would offer companionship and help, and solve personal and social problems."

Girls also prefer technology that is interactive and user-friendly. In addition, Jones says. "They like when science relates to their lives, and when it's somehow doing good socially."

Then there is the issue of isolation. Even at a top-ranking technical high school in Brooklyn, Dr. Brunner says, "Boys made fun of the girls. It was enormously moving to hear how girls felt undermined - that something of interest to them was not legitimate."

To help break those barriers, Brunner's center has designed a "telementoring" project. Using computers, girls connect with women in technical fields, teachers, and female peers. In the process, Brunner says, "They're more motivated to learn and accelerate in technology."

Elsewhere, Anne Joelle, who teaches "electronic book" courses at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, has created a multi-media Internet curriculum on women in history. Students link up with other schools to share information electronically.

"The girls told me on-line how important this was for them," Ms. Joelle says. "They felt they developed confidence in being able to communicate with these tools."

And at the Winsor School, a "tinkering course," modeled after a project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has given girls a chance to work with tools and equipment.

A larger solution involves changing academic requirements. Paula Rayman, director of the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute, notes that many Eastern European countries make science, math, and technological education "compulsory up to a fundamental skill level." By contrast, she fears that American educators may "encourage only those girls who show an initial interest in technology."

Parents also play a role, Ms. Ransome says. Along with educators, they can encourage computer use at home and school. They can also ask software companies to develop more home computer games for girls.

"We're not talking about coddling girls here," Ransome says. "We're talking about equipping them with know-how and a can-do attitude." She adds, "The more we can share with one another - parents, educators, business people - about what it takes to interest and sustain girls in these so-called non-traditional fields, the more likely we'll all be looking at success stories, not setbacks."

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