Sciences/Tech/Engineering/Math

Nobel Predictions

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Can a formula suggest who will win this year?

Survival Tips

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GMP offers suggestions for female graduate students in science and technology fields.

Questioning Value of Science Degrees

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International study doubts correlation between increasing number of STEM graduates and economic growth, while finding link between total graduates and economic growth.

Reality Check

When I started teaching chemistry at a women’s college 10 years ago, a sophomore named Tahnee came to me and said she wasn’t very good at math, so was a bit nervous about taking chemistry. She wanted to become a doctor, so she said I had better be a good teacher. As a young professor, I was taken aback, but also impressed with this student’s confidence and drive.

Tahnee proceeded to attend every office hour I scheduled. Sometimes she had problems on homework but often, she simply did extra problems at the tables outside my office door. Apparently, she told her friends that this was a good way to learn chemistry, and soon, I had about 10 women sitting outside my door during every office hour. They would help each other with problems or send representatives to my office if they got stuck.

After a while, I asked Tahnee how she got all these young women to spend so much time doing chemistry. She explained that she lectured them about how people didn't think that women could do science and that it was up to them to prove that Scripps women were better at chemistry than their male counterparts. I was stunned. This young woman understood that gender discrimination existed but wasn't about to let that stop her.

At this point, Claremont McKenna College, a member of our joint science department, had far more chemistry majors than Scripps. But now, 10 years later, that situation is reversed. I have come to understand the value of a woman’s college in terms of encouraging young women to study science.

I wonder if Tahnee, as much as she was a leader, would have parked outside my office if she attended a co-ed college. In the single-sex environment, women (students, faculty and staff) have high expectations for each other and help each other live up to those expectations.

Seeing the successes of young women at women’s colleges makes me proud to work at Scripps. As a chemistry professor and now the mother of three daughters, what more could I ask for?

Actually, a lot. Because when the Tahnees go on to graduate school, the reception isn’t always a warm one. Nationally, nearly 50 percent of chemistry undergraduates are women, but it’s nowhere near that percentage when it comes to gender equity in Ph.D. programs or in academic careers. And the reason for the falloff continues to be gender discrimination.

We have had a number of women chemistry majors, from each of our participating colleges (Scripps, Pitzer and Claremont McKenna), go on to graduate school and be quite successful, but they often remark that the transition is difficult. A few years ago, one of my Scripps students enrolled in a Ph.D. program in chemistry but had trouble finding a research lab that would take her. I remember her words when she informed me of her decision to leave with a master’s degree: “You never told me that in science, men assume I’m stupid.”

The recent Harvard Business Review study on brain drain, “The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology,” found that 41 percent of highly qualified scientists, engineers, and technologists on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders are female. But the study found that 52 percent drop out because they are marginalized by hostile macho cultures. This contradicts Susan Pinker's argument in “The Sexual Paradox,” that women leave science fields because they were pushed to be scientists and engineers and they ended up in jobs they didn’t enjoy. While Pinker's argument may hold true for some we simply cannot ignore that prejudices in science exist and have a negative effect on the women in these careers.

Not buying it? Consider recent blogger comments on a higher education blog:

  • “So the problem is women won’t take risks, won’t spend enough time at work, choose unconventional and even ‘mysterious’ career paths, and don’t successfully fit into the workplace culture. My gosh, if I said that, I’d be branded a MCP!”
  • “If they can’t stand the heat, they should get back to the kitchen.”
  • “I like behaving like a male. I find women interesting to a point. The problem is that we need we need more GOOD-LOOKING females in the science field.”

Such comments demonstrate a mind-set that is damaging to women in science. I forwarded the article and the string of blog comments to a female colleague in biology and she responded, “This is so depressing!” Why is it that there are those out there who are still trying to make being a woman in science so depressing?

Sadly, these bloggers point out another problem we thought was solved. Many insist that the discriminators are the old men and things will get better once they retire or die off. But blogging is the sphere of younger men so the comments above likely came from male academics who will be around a long time.

A junior colleague once questioned my work with a women in science committee on campus. “It is not like the 60s,” he said. “Those women had it really tough. Today at least we let you women have these jobs, we let you in the door.” I informed him that we were not ‘let in’ but that we were highly qualified teachers and scholars and that our credentials must never be questioned.

A 1999 MIT study on the status of women faculty in science states, “Once and for all we must recognize that the heart and soul of discrimination, the last refuge of the bigot, is to say that those who are discriminated against deserve it because they are less good.”

The MIT study is an excellent example of what can be achieved when people come together to solve a difficult problem. Their recommendations included establishing a continuing review of primary data to ensure that inequities do not occur, and ensuring close communication among senior women faculty, department heads, deans, and university leadership to prevent marginalization of women faculty and to integrate senior women faculty knowledge of gender issues at the level where academic power resides. The latter will remain critically important until women faculty routinely occupy positions of academic power.

In 2000, to advance the cause of women scientists, I created a Celebrating Women in Science Speaker Series. Harvey Mudd and Pomona Colleges, the other members of the Claremont Consortium, have endowed lectureships in chemistry but over the years have hosted very few female scientists. The Scripps version was intended to remedy that. Well-known women scientists have discussed their work, but more importantly, their career trajectories and methods they had learned to navigate a career in science.

In 2006, I did something unheard of. I invited a man to be the series speaker. Richard Zare, chair of chemistry at Stanford University, had written an article in Chemical & Engineering News entitled, “Sex Lies and Title IX,” in which he endorsed the use of Title IX to address the lack of equity in science, just as the federal law has been used to promote equity in athletics. Even someone as enlightened as Professor Zare admits that he sometimes succumbs to a culture that, in his words, “broadcasts signals about the innate superiority of men.”

Women colleagues expressed concern over the need for bringing in a man to discuss issues facing women in science. Sadly, while I agreed with them at some level, I knew we did need him. The Zare lecture was attended by more of the male scientists in Claremont that any of the previous 12 lectures. Zare discussed a number of the issues women have regularly raised, but coming from him, it had more weight.

A recent study of the plight of women leaders by Catalyst found that women leaders often offer ideas in a meeting, only to have a male colleague restate the idea and take credit for it. A senior executive quoted in the study advised women to “nip it in the bud,” by thanking the male colleague for rewording your idea, and then asking the rest of the meeting attendees what they think about implementing it. While "nipping it in the bud" is a good idea, it gets really tiring having to fight to be heard.

Being tired is my final point. Studies discuss how women leave science, or become disenchanted, later in their careers. I think the dissatisfaction comes when you’ve gotten tired of fighting to be heard, to be counted, to be taken seriously. When we are young, we think we can overcome anything. It is when we realize that we have not overcome the obstacles but instead simply learned to live with them that we become disenchanted. This is what I want to see changed. I do not want my daughters to find their dream job in a male-dominated career, only to later be too tired and beat up to enjoy it.

I think most male scientists have good intentions, but as Zare pointed out, gender discrimination is embedded in our culture. Gender discrimination can only be eradicated through a collective desire to eradicate it. We cannot continue to dismiss reports on brain drain, such as the recent Harvard Business Review study, as women whining. Such studies prove the problem has not been solved. We must remain vigilant. The attitudes and ideals about creating spaces for women as scholars and leaders may be the norm where I work, but we have to be vigilant about spreading these attitudes and ideals throughout academia and beyond.

Mary Hatcher-Skeers is associate professor of chemistry at Scripps College.

Searching for Islands of Success

Public and private funders have spent billions of dollars -- sometimes wastefully -- on education initiatives like those in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines without rigorous assessment and evaluation. Not asking for documented results when so much money is on the line misses a golden opportunity to determine whether such programs are indeed helping to improve the way students learn and enhancing their engagement in their studies.

Before more money is spent, we need to listen to those well-attested success stories -- what I like to call “islands of success” -- learn from them, and put assessment to work so that student learning can be improved in all fields, not least the STEM disciplines.

A Tough Look at the STEM Disciplines

Close on the heels of the student loan scandal, the U.S. Department of Education admitted that the federal government has poured billions of dollars into STEM education with little evidence that the money produced good results. More recently, Congress passed the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act, leaving open the possibility that billions more may be poured into the effort to improve education in these crucial areas.

State governments, businesses and corporations, foundations, and private individuals have likewise invested a lot of money in these disciplines with little insistence on seeing results. One would think the bigger the appropriation of funds, the greater the need for in-depth assessment of results, especially when the progress in improving the performance of our students in science and math fields is so tenuous. Let’s look at some of the readily available evidence.

  • The just-released math results of the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows gains in grade 4 performance and some smaller gains in grade 8 performance. While these data are encouraging in some ways, the real test is whether these gains can be sustained over time. For example, the National Center for Educational Statistics -- which administers the NAEP -- reports that from 1995-2006, students showed an increase in grade 4 performance in science-related subjects, stagnation at grade 8, and a decline at grade 12. Will the NAEP math results follow this pattern?
  • SAT scores are also telling. According to the College Board’s news release of August 28, 2007: “The long-term trend in mathematics scores is up, rising from 501, 20 years ago to 511, 10 years ago to 515 this year.” But the last two years show declines: “Mathematics scores hit an all-time high of 520 in 2005, before slipping in 2006 and 2007.” This year verbal scores, now called “Critical Reading”, dropped one point to 502. There was also a drop in the new Writing component of the SAT.

Comparison of the mathematical skills of young people with their verbal (“critical reading”) skills isn’t encouraging either. (With all the money that has gone into STEM disciplines over the decades, one would expect to see robust growth compared to the chronically undernourished reading and writing area.) While the NAEP test indicates some gains since 1996 for minority students, and improvement in both reading and math at elementary and middle school levels, it documents stagnation at the high school level (12th grade) for both areas.

Stagnation is also the story in both realms over the longer term. The NCES report on the NAEP Long-Term Trend Assessment, which includes both math and reading scores over the past three decades, shows that 17-year-olds in both areas were doing no better in 2005 than their counterparts in 1971 and 1996.

Where are the Islands?

None of this suggests that funding should be cut for the STEM disciplines, but it does point to the need to look more closely at those “islands of success,” both in the STEM disciplines and in more “verbal” areas. We need to find the places where careful evaluation has been done and positive results demonstrated. The report from the Department of Education mentioned above warns us not to expect to discover many of such islands on the STEM side.

Programs to strengthen student learning in reading, foreign languages, history, literature, and other humanistic fields may have done little better than their more quantitative counterparts, where one would expect rigorous evaluations, but they do have some successes to report. To be sure, their evaluations are often based on interviews or opinion surveys, rather than on learning outcomes, but such assessments can be very useful. For example, when evaluators from the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center assessed the impact of teacher professional development seminars at the National Humanities Center (where I was director from 1989-2003), they gathered data on how the participants taught the subject matter of the program both before and after their time at the center. They found that teachers changed from more passive to more active teaching techniques and that teacher after teacher reported higher levels of engagement and student learning.

Seminars such as those at the NHC invite comparison with the Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Programs(TM) (APTIP) and Pre-AP Training and Incentive Programs(TM) in Texas. To date, with funding from ExxonMobil (through the National Math and Science initiative)
and others, these programs have provided rigorous training in math, science, and English for “almost 900 AP teachers and more than 7,800 pre-AP teachers in more than 230 high schools and 350 middle schools in more than 80 Texas districts.”

The results are encouraging: “In 1996, when an AP Incentive Program was started in 10 Dallas schools, the number of students per 1,000 juniors and seniors scoring 3 or higher on mathematics, science, and English AP exams was just two-thirds of the national average. Ten years later, these schools are two-thirds above the national average.”

Such success stories are out there, on both sides of the Two Cultures divide, in public institutions and private ones, large and small. They can be instructive to all of us, not least those of us whose goal is to support gains in student learning.

Philanthropy needs to ferret out the programs that really work and figure out what accounts for their success when so many others are at best mediocre. Federal and state governments and corporations need to do the same, making sure that their evaluation processes are not just accumulating data, but vigorously and systematically searching for what works best, and then supporting these projects generously, bringing them up to scale and extending their impact.

Do we really know what accounts for such successes? Maybe not, but I’ll wager that the programs that succeed have often evaluated their results and used those evaluations to guide planning and make successive improvements in program design. Whether that hypothesis proves correct or not, careful assessment of results, as we have repeatedly seen in our grants at the Teagle Foundation, helps the funder improve its grant programs over time. We learn from our successes, and, yes, our failures too.

Author/s: 
W. Robert Connor
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

W. Robert Connor is president of the Teagle Foundation and former director of the National Humanities Center. He thanks Jill Jeffery of New York University for research assistance.

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