Hooking girls on math and science

Summary:Will all girls tech schools work?

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- When 6th-grade students at Kathleen Bennett's middle school need an answer to a question, they're as likely to huddle around a cluster of computers as they are to raise their hand and ask for help.

They work with HTML and Photoshop, and they throw out structural engineering terms such as "translational equilibrium" and "load path" without hesitation.

They're the inaugural class at the Girls Middle School (GMS) here, the first all-girls junior high in Silicon Valley founded specifically to foster interest in math, science and engineering.

Bennett, a former middle school teacher and employee no. 214 at Apple Computer Inc. (Nasdaq:AAPL), started the private school to show girls that science and technology can be as interesting as the liberal arts subjects girls traditionally choose to study. Bennett plans to have the girls programming in a language such as Java by 8th grade.

She decided to target pre-teen girls because studies show that's when girls lose interest in science.

Not girl geeks
GMS students also study history, English, and arts, and Bennett bristles at the notion that she plans to churn out one-dimensional girl geeks.

"I'm not here to preprogram any girl for any career," Bennett said. "I simply think that if more girls knew how fun it is to program, they'd be more willing to try it out."

As the first year wraps up, GMS teachers say they've kept the girls interested in science and technology by demonstrating the subjects' practical applications. For example, the girls spent the first semester learning structural engineering by studying how bridges are built, and then constructing some miniatures of their own.

Keeping technology practical is the key to luring girls to the subject, acording to Whitney Ransome, co-director of the National Coalition of Girls Schools. Instead of just bombarding girls with formulas and problems, teachers need to show girls why they need to learn them. "It's important to show the diversity of how math and science is used in your life," she said.

GMS is small right now, consisting of only one 6th grade class made up of 35 students. Bennett plans to add a new class every year until she has 6th, 7th, and 8th grades and a total of 120 students. Such schools seem to be part of a growing trend. A similar institution, The Julia Morgan School for Girls, is opening across the San Francisco Bay in Oakland next fall, and at least 15 girls schools have launched during the past 5 years, each having some science or technology component.

Will it work?
However, researchers said it's too soon to tell whether removing boys from the scenario boosts girls' achievement in science and math. Bennett insisted it does, because she said teachers tend to call more on boys.

"We don't have any boys, so we can't give them all of the attention," she said. "The girls aren't ambivalent about how smart they can be, how assertive they can be, how many risks they can take, because that element doesn't exist of worrying how popular they're going to be with the boys."

GMS student Jo Pearson agreed. She said boys at her old school took up a lot of space, especially at the computer. "Since there were only four, the boys were all over them all recess and lunch, and we didn't get any time on the computer," Pearson said.

Several GMS students told the same story.

However, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) said such problems can be solved by putting sign-up lists at computers. A recent AAUW study of whether girls-only schools help young women academically was inconclusive. The study found that smaller class sizes and more engagement with the teacher were better predictors of student success. "There's no evidence that single-sex schools are helping girls more academically," an AAUW spokeswoman said.

Even the National Organization for Women said it's not comfortable with any program that gives preference to one gender over another.

But Jo Pearson's father, Peter, beamed proudly as he dropped off a carful of girls, including his daughter, at GMS. "I really wanted her to be part of a pioneering endeavor," he said. "These girls are pioneers."

Topics: Apple, IT Employment

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