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Getting Girls to Excel

GEMS conference provides ways to encourage girls to take math and science courses.

The enrollment in computer science classes and programs in Fairfax County Public Schools between 1997 and 2003 was 76 percent boys, 24 percent girls. In 1984, women constituted 37 percent of those who received computer science degrees from universities and colleges, while today the percentage is down to 27.

DOGWOOD Elementary School, in cooperation with Lockheed Martin, its corporate sponsor, and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) sponsored a conference for fifth- and sixth-grade girls to encourage them to take math and science classes. Girls Excelling in Math and Science (GEMS) started in 1991 through the AAUW. Marilyn Silvey, a member of the AAUW, said the conference was started to show girls they can pursue careers in the fields of math and science.

"Teachers and parents need to make sure they are aware of the way each gender learns at this age," said Fran Lovaas with the AAUW. "Encouragement needs to be applied differently." She added research within the past 15 years shows when girls hit puberty they start not taking courses in science. On top of girls' general disinterest in the field, boys tend to speak up louder, said Lovaas.

After 12 years of sponsoring the event, AAUW formed a partnership with Dogwood Elementary School, to provide the space for the conference. Linda Martin, the gifted and talented (GT) teacher at Dogwood, took on the organization of the conference. "This has really personally been her passion," said Ricki Harvey, the Dogwood principal. For the past two years Martin has engaged the school's corporate sponsor, Lockheed Martin, to help with the program. Since the conference moved to Dogwood, this was its third year there, the numbers of students and parents has increased each year. The participation this year was at 250 girls registered, and 100 parents. "I am so thrilled to see this room packed," said Martin, "that just shows me you girls are ready to be inspired."

THE CONFERENCE, held on Saturday, March 12, hosted 27 hands-on workshops for the fifth- and sixth-grade girls. They were taught by professional women in fields of math and science, including employees of NASA and Lockheed Martin, among others. The keynote speaker at the conference was Monica McManus, the Vice President of Geospatial-Intelligence Systems and Service with Lockheed Martin. In her address to the students and the parents, McManus said math and science are a part of many careers. "Take math and science classes because it will be really important in no matter what career you take," she said. McManus explained to the audience she works in teams everyday, and related her teamwork to the teamwork many of the girls in the audience experience through teams they may be playing for, or groups they are a part of in their classroom. "Girls make decisions early on not to take math and science classes," said McManus, "and lose opportunities later on in life." The trend, added McManus, has to be changed at home and in schools, by encouraging the girls to take the courses.

ONE OF the workshops at the conference, "Helping Girls Achieve in Math and Science," was offered for the parents, to learn how to encourage their girls to stay in math and science. Elizabeth Vandenburg, the co-presenter of the workshop and the co-director of AAUW's Tech Savvy Girls Project, said it is important to show the girls the math and science jobs are not boring. "You don't just sit behind computers the whole day — you work on teams," she said. Vandenburg did warn, however, that adults need to look at themselves as well. She said research shows teachers do not call on girls as much as the boys.

Vandenburg's co-presenter, Laura Jones, urged the parents to change their daughters' outlook on computer scientists. The image of computer scientists, at the fifth- and sixth- grade age, is they are geeky, she said. "As a mom or dad, you need to go out of your way to find your girls role models," added Jones.