Network's Goal: More Women in Math, Science
On March 20, more than 10,000 young women took a step that, for some, was the first move toward careers in fields that otherwise they would not have considered: science, mathematics, and engineering.
Converging on 32 campuses (29 in the U.S. and three in Australia), the girls--all secondary-school students--were attending conferences called "Expanding Your Horizons in Mathematics and Science."
Conducted under the auspices of the Math/Science Network, the conferences gave some participants "hands-on" experience in science laboratories; a chance to learn about fields in which women have long been underrepresented; and, perhaps most important, the opportunity to meet women who are scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.
March 20 was a peak attendance day for the conferences--one of the major outreach activities of the Math/Science Network--and hence not necessarily typical. But the widespread participation on that day offers evidence of the success of the network, a project that started seven years ago with 10 or so people and a goal of increasing the involvement of girls and women in mathematics and the sciences.
Today, the Math/Science Network, which is based in California, has more than 1,000 members in the U.S. and abroad who are involved in hundreds of large and small projects with that goal in mind. The projects--curriculum development, films, workshops--are directed at students, teachers, and administrators.
The members come from elementary, sec-ondary, and higher education, as well as from industry and government.
The network began as--and remains--a largely volunteer organization. However, the survival of at least some aspects of its activities--stipends for teachers, for example--may be jeopardized by the loss of federal funding, which until recently was provided by the National Science Foundation, through Title IV of the Civil Rights Act and the Women's Educational Equity Act, according to network organizers.
The network, which has no dues, no formal structure, and no membership requirements beyond interest and commitment, began informally in 1975, according to Nancy Kreinberg, director of math and science education for women at the Lawrence Hall of Science of the University of California at Berkeley, and one of the original organizers.
Concerned about the high attrition rates of girls and women in mathematics, a small group of Bay Area educators from both secondary and higher education began to meet to discuss the problems and potential solutions.
'Gateway to the Sciences'
Their concern stemmed in part from a 1973 study conducted by a University of California at Berkeley researcher, which found that significantly more males than females completed four years of mathematics in secondary schools. Since mathematics, Ms. Kreinberg noted, is the "gateway to the sciences," as well as an important field in itself, the girls who take only a minimal amount of mathematics are effectively cutting off their chances of majoring in mathematics, engineering, and the sciences.
The network grew, and in 1976 the group undertook its first joint project, an "Expanding Your Horizons" conference held at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and attended by 200 students. Since that initial effort, the network has spawned numerous other conferences as well as a host of projects that involve curriculum development, workshops, teacher training, films, and the like, according to Ms. Kreinberg.
The projects are coordinated out of the offices of the network's Math/Science Resource Center, located at Mills College, where a computerized database holds information submitted by members on their whereabouts, current undertakings, and interests. Jan MacDonald, the center's director, fields questions, makes referrals, and puts members in touch with other members--and nonmembers--from all over the country who have common interests. The center, she said, acts as a "clearinghouse and switchboard" for the network.
Two of the largest projects, however, are the "Expanding Your Hori-zons" conferences and a teacher-education program called equals, which aims to draw more female students into mathematics by providing their teachers with a wide variety of innovative teaching methods and programs, all of which can be taken directly back to the classroom, according to Ms. Kreinberg, who directs the equals project.
The "Expanding Your Horizons" conferences will have involved a total of about 42,000 young women by the end of this year, according to Ms. MacDonald. Like those held March 20, most of the conferences include sessions that focus on science and mathematics, and in which women professionals describe career possibilities, Ms. MacDonald said. In addition, the gatherings offer separate sessions for teachers and parents. About 4,000 parents will have participated by the end of 1982, Ms. MacDonald said.
Most of the conferences are only one day or, at the most, several days in length. Nevertheless, they seem to be having a positive effect, according to the preliminary results of a study funded by the National Science Foundation. The study, which attempts to measure the impact of the program, suggests that the workshops do make a difference in the career plans of the young women who participate in them, according to Ms. MacDonald. "It's safe to say that yes, it makes a difference," she said.
The young women who participate react very favorably to the conferences, according to network organizers and others. In Maryland, where on March 20 the state education department and the Washington-based Mid-Atlantic Center for Sex Equity cosponsored an "Expanding Your Horizons" session, the 300 secondary-school students who attended found it "very exciting," according to Ann Irvine, sex-equity specialist for the Maryland Department of Education. "We had a terrific response," she said.
Far more students than had originally been expected came, many from distant parts of the state. "You had people who were willing to take a long drive," she said. Their aim in holding the conference, said Ms. Irvine, had been to demonstrate a need for such activities. "I think we succeeded in that," she said. The girls themselves responded with such comments as, "We need more of this," Ms. Irvine said. "It really opened these girls' eyes, not just to career possibilities, but that they'd better settle down and take some math."
"Girls and minorities in math need something extra," Ms. Kreinberg said. Without those extra efforts on the part of educators, she said, "I think you'll still lose a lot of these kids. They won't see it as their world."
Teacher-education programs, such as the equals program, are an important component of the network, Ms. Kreinberg said, because "the problem is big enough that we can't hope to reach all students."
The equals program, funded in part by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has trained about 1,500 teachers in 30-hour workshops in California. The equals staff also travels to other areas, where they offer 10-hour workshops for teachers. The goal of these workshop, Ms. Kreinberg said, is to train teachers to become "trainers of teachers" themselves.
Each 30-hour workshop includes five days of activities, interspersed throughout the year. The participat-ing teachers and administrators--roughly one-third of whom are male--work with computers, talk with women scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, and learn a variety of teaching techniques designed to involve all students, including those who traditionally have less success in mathematics--girls and minorities.
"The problem with teaching math is that it's sort of a rote procedure," Ms. Kreinberg said. Frequently, teachers lecture on the material, students memorize it and hand it back to the teacher on test papers. There is often little attention paid to the process of solving the problem, or how a student has arrived at a particular answer. "It appears to many kids that either you get it or you don't," said Ms. Kreinberg. There is also, she added, a lot of competition between students, which tends to have a negative influence on the girls.
By varying the teaching methods to include more cooperative activities, and more emphasis on problem-solving, however, many students who previously either did poorly or disliked mathematics improve in both performance and attitude. "It very much helps kids to reason," Ms. Kreinberg said, adding that it also makes them more confident..
Teachers have reacted favorably to the program. "They love it. They just love it," Ms. Kreinberg said, noting that in many cases, the equals programs will have twice as many applicants as there are spaces available.
"This kind of workshop can renew their enthusiasm," Ms. Kreinberg said. "They tell us, 'This is really giving me a shot in the arm. Now I'm remembering all those things I used to do, but stopped doing."'
Some participants have worried that the program would be "one of those sex-role stereotyping workshops," and express relief that it turns out to be otherwise. "We give them a lot of that, but we do it all through math," Ms. Kreinberg said.
Ms. Kreinberg noted that among schools that have been participating in the network's teacher-education programs for at least two years, the figures show a "slow but steady increase" in the number of girls enrolled in mathematics courses.
The benefits, she said, are not confined to girls. All of the students at the schools show increased enthusiasm for and interest in mathematics.
Currently, teachers who participate in the equals program receive a $25-per-day stipend. With funding uncertainties, that stipend may not be available in the future, Ms. Kreinberg said, and it is possible that that may deter some teachers from participating, either because they are unwilling or unable. She said that few take the program for credit, that participants generally range in age from the late-30's to the early-40's, and that many have "topped out."
Loss of federal funding would no doubt seriously handicap the network, but those who participate in its activities suggest that it is unlikely that it would destroy it entirely. "I think what makes us unique and makes us continue is that it's a grassroots organization with people from all levels," Ms. MacDonald said. "They're all concerned with this issue, and all willing to make a commitment. There are very few spectators in the network. We give something but we also expect to receive something for ourselves and our programs."