Education Opinion

Changing Girls’ Ideas About Scientists’ Work

By Carole B. Shmurak — May 07, 1986 7 min read

Study after study documents the fact that girls take fewer science courses than boys do. Compared with boys, girls show less confidence about their ability in science and are more easily discouraged by low grades in the subject. I contend that it is not the content of science that is responsible for the disparity, but rather the ways in which teachers communicate that content.

We do a great disservice to science and to our students, both male and female, when we present science as cool, unemotional, and impersonal. We pretend that there is a scientific method whereby observations are recorded and conclusions are drawn--logically, objectively. The history of science is so rich with counter-examples that it is remarkable that the myth of “the scientific method” still persists. And yet, if young people are attracted to a field by the way it advertises itself, the myth is perpetuated. It’s no wonder that so many girls perceive science as a masculine endeavor.

The goal of those of us who teach science should be to restore the emotional, aesthetic, and personal dimensions to the subject--not only to make it more appealing to female students (although that is an important reason), but also to provide a more accurate picture of science as it is practiced.

To get an idea of what I mean about the actual practice of science, read the following quotations from four scientists-two men and two women. Can you tell the sex of the person making each statement? (The scientists are identified at the bottom of this page.)

1. “The best analogy [for research] is always love . . . . [I]fyou want to understand a tumor, you’ve got to be a tumor.”

2. “The state of feeling which makes one capable of such achievements is akin to that of the religious worshiper or of one who is in love.”

3. “I found that the more I worked [with chromosomes under the microscope] the bigger and bigger they got, and when I was really working with them, I wasn’t outside, I was down there. I was part of the system .... I actually felt as if I were right down there and these were my friends.”

4. “We need to extend our body to include the object-so that we come to dwell in it.” How many teachers present science as an endeavor that embodies such passion, love, and empathy?

The aesthetics of science also tend to be ignored. But James Watson, writing about his and Francis Crick’s discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, recalled their telling each other that “a structure this pretty just had to exist.” Is that an objective or logical statement? I’m always glad that it’s in the fall that I teach the structure of beta-carotene, the orange pigment that colors carrots and autumn leaves. The class and I look at the molecular structure with all its mobile electrons, a very pretty structure, then turn to look out the windows to see how beautiful those beta-carotenes are in the turning leaves. Instead of scientific knowledge interfering with aesthetic appreciation, students usually find the knowledge enriching.

We also limit students’ understanding of the real world of science when we tell them that scientists always carry out research through a logical, step-by-step process, testing hypotheses and abandoning them unemotionally if the data contradict them In fact, it’s just as likely for a scientist to throw out the data as anomalous if they contradict the prevailing theory. When the physicist Michael Polanyi published, in 1914, the results of an experiment on the attraction of gas molecules to solid surfaces, his findings were contrary to the current view. Despite ‘his strong experimental evidence, his work was so thoroughly rejected that he dropped the whole matter and went on to more acceptable ideas. It was not until the 1950’s that his work was rediscovered, at a time when newer theories could accommodate the behavior of Polanyi’s molecules. Do we ever discuss such situations in our science classrooms?

We also make a mistake by focusing on the competitive nature of science, on the achievements of predominantly male Nobel Prize winners. This, in my opinion, is wrong; for the majority of scientists, science is not a matter of winning or losing. In addition, the focus is too narrow: Nobel Prizes are awarded in only three scientific fields--chemistry, physics, and medicine and physiology. Fields such as astronomy and botany-- for which there are no big prizes and much less recognition--have always had a much larger proportion of women. Perhaps they were more welcome in these fields because the subjects were not as attractive to the most ambitious men.

We often lose sight of the fact that much of scientific research is collaborative--groups of researchers working as teams, sharing problems, findings, and insights. It is a wonderful experience to let a small class or small groups within a class operate this way. Each year, my students in advanced placement chemistry spend one of the first class periods in this way. How, I ask them, could we determine the specific heat of a metal in the laboratory? I tell the students to work as a team for as long as it takes to come up with a workable method.

It is amazing to watch the way they work--after they get over the initial shock of being assigned the task. One girl picks up the thread of another’s ideas and carries it a little further, over and over until a procedure is worked out by the entire group, each student having played a part. It is a collaborative effort, not just for the sake of doing something collaboratively, but because it illustrates how science in the real world often operates.

In bringing out the aspects of the field that are often neglected--the emotional, aesthetic, subjective, and collaborative--one is not diluting the science content, but J rather enriching it by giving a more three-dimensional picture of the enterprise called science. Thus, all of what I’ve described so far is as important for male students as for female students; at the same time, it does make science far more attractive to girls than the cold, objective approach.

But what of the fact that science, as it is practiced today, is still a predominantly male field? What of sex differences relevant to science?

In reviewing hundreds of studies on sex differences, a 1975 study found only two intellectual differences that could be substantiated: Boys seemed to have better spatial ability, while girls had better verbal ability. More recent evidence suggests that even these differences have not been clearly established. If these differences are real, are they biologically or culturally based? No such differences are found in Eskimo boys and girls, which lends support to the idea that they have a cultural cause. How important is it if these differences do exist? It may be very important if, for example, physics is taught by a male teacher who is himself very spatially oriented and makes no attempt to teach in any other way.

On the other hand, there is evidence that spatial ability can be improved--for example, by playing video games. When I determined for myself, sometime in high school, that my own spatial ability was not very good, I found that I could compensate by always working with physical models that I could hold and touch. For me, organic chemistry included a lot of play with jellybeans and toothpicks until I could finally visualize what molecules looked like in three dimensions. If science teachers want to help girls understand science, they should provide physical models for those who need them.

Jane Butler Kahle, president of the National Association of Biology Teachers, has studied the behavior of teachers who are successful at getting girls to pursue science. Her results are hardly surprising: These teachers provide many opportunities for hands-on lab activities, they avoid sexist humor and sex-stereotyped examples, they don’t allow boys to dominate activities, they provide career information, and they describe teaching as a profession and science as beautiful.

A lot has been said about the use of role models in the science classroom. At our school, we have found that this can work in different ways. A visit from a competitive and intimidating Nobel Prize-winning woman scientist reinforced the view that only the most brilliant and aggressive female can achieve anything in science. On the other hand, we have also had visits from an industrial chemist and a chemistry professor, both of them women who loved their work and both of whom admitted receiving a C in freshman chemistry in college. This was encouraging to most of the girls, because many of them had mistakenly felt that they had to be better than any boy to find a place for themselves in science.

A final quote--one from Cecily Cannan Selby’s article “Turning People on to Science” (Physics Today, July 1982): “Science must be presented as not only basic but beautiful, as those of us whose lives and professions have been touched by this beauty are so proud and privileged to know.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 1986 edition of Education Week