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Clubs Encourage Math and Science for Girls

Focus groups show that girls tend to have less interest in math, science and technology courses because the subjects are perceived as too hard.

July 18, 2002

Seven years ago, Laura Reasoner Jones began a club, GEMS (Girls Excelling in Math and Science), at Clearview Elementary School after she began taking notice of her own daughter's lack of interest or confidence in math and science.

A Fairfax County Public Schools preschool special-education teacher by trade, Jones was not that well-versed in the subjects herself but was determined to change the minds of the fifth- and sixth-grade girls through hands-on activities that taught concepts of higher math and science, and eventually adding technology, without worrying about conforming to the Standards of Learning.

"We tended to do games for math like the Estimate Olympics, and we added Internet stuff to it a couple years ago," Jones said. "One year we even made paint. Even though it was this crafty thing, we made the paint for it."

Jones, along with club co-creator Carol Meier, made an impression on the girls as well, many of whom went on to take advanced math and science courses in middle and high school.

"I was the reason my mom started the whole thing because I said I hated math," said Julie Hill, Jones' daughter and an original GEM. "Now, I love math and I want to be a mechanical engineer."

Hill, a senior at Herndon High School, plans to take advanced placement calculus this coming school year.

ABOUT FOUR YEARS AGO, the Fairfax County Office for Women began a Girls and Technology Advisory Committee aimed at finding ways to encourage young girls to take high-school computer and technology courses, since those are two fields where women are underrepresented.

Lesley Persily, a program analyst for the Office for Women, asked Jones to speak at an event last year aimed at helping others create girls-only clubs focusing on math, science and technology. There are now eight clubs for various ages. Seven are in schools, and the eighth is at the Reston Teen Center.

"This past school year, we looked at every technology course. We were surprised to find that from seventh-grade keyboarding classes to college-level computer science, not a single one had a majority of girls," said Persily. "We focus on technology as separate from math and science because the math and science enrollment was virtually the same last year."

Persily said, however, that school statistics show advanced placement physics, for example, had a 3-1 ratio of boys to girls, but classes such as biology had more girls. Conversely, computer science classes remain 90 percent boys. She also said the pattern continues in college, even though students have more opportunities to enroll in technology-oriented courses than in high school. Women make up 19 percent of the work force in science and technology, she said.

"In focus groups, girls expressed frustration and viewed technology as too hard," Persily said. "They view computer jobs as isolating and said they didn't want to work in cubicles. There doesn't seem to be a good understanding among girls that there is a range of technology jobs and that there is interaction with people."

THROUGH GEMS, Jones got the girls interested in math and science with projects that ranged from making bridges out of candy pieces and straws, having guest speakers such as female pilots, making paint from scratch for arts and crafts projects, the M&M challenge — where the girls figured out the percentages of each color in the bags of candy, and the always popular chemistry T-shirts.

"Since the club is fifth- and sixth-graders, we only do the T-shirts every other year. We make the designs and solution to make T-shirts," Jones said. "We take permanent markers with alcohol that breaks down the components in the markers, and we have a tie-dye sort of thing. The girls always learned nothing can erase permanent maker, but we changed that."

Besides sparking interest in new GEMS, Jones stayed in contact with her former members and in 2002 was able to reach 43 of the 60 original members, who were now juniors and seniors. She found that, compared with the overall enrollment of girls throughout the school system, GEMS girls had taken significantly more higher-level math and science courses. In addition, the GEMS girls enrolled in a larger percentage of technology courses.

"I started the club for my daughter, and seven years later what a difference it's made in their choices," Jones said.

The club made such an impression on Hill, she spent time this year helping run the GEMS.

"It showed me math wasn't as hard as I thought," Hill said.

THE GEMS CLUB is still going strong at Clearview as a girls-only club. The fifth- and sixth-graders meet after school from January to March. Membership is free; the Clearview Elementary PTA picks up the tab for any expenses. Jones and Meier have had to limit membership to 20.

Jones' research on the GEMS Club, titled "A Look at Girls' Attitudes toward Math, Science and Technology," was published in the spring 2002 edition of the Virginia Society for Technology in Education Journal. In addition, she has helped create a digital library of video, text and accompanying documentation showing accomplished teaching with technology. The video is expected to be available in the schools come September.