April 01, 1999 2 min read

Weird Science: For more than a decade, science educators have believed that students learn better if they actually do science in the classroom rather than just read about it in books. But according to a new study, even the best of these performance-based classrooms do little to bridge the science gender gap; girls and boys experience science differently.

Researchers Jasna Jovanovic and Sally Steinbach King of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign chose to study six exemplary science instructors who had expressed in interviews a sensitivity to gender differences in their classrooms. The teachers, scattered across Illinois, taught grades 5 through 8. Teams of researchers visited their classrooms twice a month over the course of a school year and observed students-girls and boys-working together in small groups on hands-on science activities.

The researchers found that the more a student manipulated the science equipment, the better his or her attitudes toward the subject by the end of the year. Girls and boys were equally likely to play a leading role in the activity by instructing a classmate on what to do or by explaining a science concept to another student. But boys tended to have their hands on the equipment more often, relegating the girls to reading directions or making suggestions. The differing behaviors had no apparent adverse impact on achievement-boys and girls earned similar grades in all six classrooms. But what surprised the researchers was that girls’ perceptions of their science abilities actually decreased over the course of the year. That was not the case with the boys.

Researchers could not say for sure why the girls lost confidence or why they seemed to take a back seat to the boys. But one point was clear to them: “The present findings suggest that the performance-based science classroom did not ensure equal participation for boys and girls,” they write. And that was in classrooms with teachers sensitive to gender differences in learning. In classrooms where teachers are less sensitive to these issues, girls may have even fewer opportunities to play an active role in hands-on learning. The study appeared in the fall issue of American Educational Research Journal.

Nature Or Nurture: The question won’t be resolved by looking at the results of an 18-year study of mothers and their children conducted by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The study found that violent behavior is not necessarily passed down from generation to generation. Academic performance, however, is another matter.

Researchers have been tracking 57 pairs of teenage mothers and their sons or daughters since the early 1980s. They found that the children of mothers who themselves were violent in childhood were only slightly more aggressive or violent than other children in the study.

On the other hand, mothers who had poor grades in school as children tended to have children who struggled academically, too. In both cases, though, the better determinants of how a child turned out were parents’ child-rearing practices and the home environment-not genes, the researchers said. Mothers who fared poorly in school, for example, also tended to read to their children less often and to provide them with fewer books.

“We’ve got to get away from this idea of the inevitability of poor outcomes,” says Robert Cairns, lead author of the study and director of the university’s Center for Developmental Science. His report appeared in the December issue of Developmental Psychology.

--Debra Viadero