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Under-Represented Populations Stand-Alone Report 2 (Progress)

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Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. Opening the Horizons
    • Project Description: Project Features; Project Participants, Audiences, and other Stakeholders; Project Context
  3. OTH Project Impact
    • Design: Information Sources
    • Results and Recommendations: Interpretations and Conclusions
  4. Discussion
    • Results and Recommendations: Interpretations and Conclusions
  5. References
  6. Tables

Strengthening Science and Math Education for Middle School Girls in Rural Southwest Missouri: Teacher Assessment of Project Impact

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Once upon a time <student>, a fifth grader in a rural school in Kansas, was a budding scientist. As a kindergartner, <student> was just as excited by butterflies, bugs, and other gadgets, as were the boys. In first grade she brought in her ant farm for show and tell. In second grade she reveled in the creation of her ecosystem in a bottle project. In third grade she entered her volcano model in the local science fair... but then something happened. In fifth grade <student>'s interest in science plummeted. She told her father and mother that she thought science was for nerds. She also began to lose interest in math. Once eager to raise her hand and participate in classroom discussions, <student> disengaged and became silent.

Stories like this are prevalent in schools across America. While girls and boys in early grades are equally brimming with "why" questions—equally interested in science and math, by fourth or fifth grade things begin to change. In fact, research shows that by age 13, most girls are not performing at the same level in math and science as their male classmates (American Association of University Women [AAAUW] Report, 1992; West, 2000; Wood, 1999). Adolescent girls' interest in math and science seems to wane as they grow older. Consequently, among eighth graders, boys are twice as likely as girls to aspire to careers in science, math, or engineering (National Center For Education Statistics [NCES],1997). Moreover, adolescent boys are found to be far more confident in their math and science abilities than girls. Even when girls get A's in science or math they still do not feel confident in their knowledge of the subject, and that insecurity causes them to opt out of science course offerings. As a result, by high school, one in four boys, but only one in seven girls said they were good at math (AAUW, 1992).

Obviously we are not communicating effectively to girls that they can succeed in these fields. Girls still face subtle roadblocks on their path into science; from teachers who encourage the responses of male students over female, to counselors and parents who discourage girls from taking advanced math courses (Mervis, 2001). In spite of efforts to diminish the transmission of messages that stereotype science and math as fields appropriate only for males, the literature indicates that the stereotypical beliefs related to these fields persist. Girls themselves express gender-stereotyped beliefs about scientists, science classes, and science careers (Baker and Leary, 1995). According to Debacker and Nelson, (1999 & 2001) perceiving science as a masculine domain directly, and negatively, correlates with achievement and persistence in science for high school girls. In addition, they add that the commonly offered explanation for female students' lower perceived ability in science is that their confidence is eroded by this stereotypical belief.

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Opening the Horizons

It becomes apparent that in order to increase the number of women in science and mathematics professions, young girls must be encouraged to maintain their initial interest in these fields throughout their middle school years. Opening the Horizons (OTH) is a three-year project involving female middle school students, teachers, parents, and community members combined with women in science and students from seven local colleges or universities in Southwest Missouri. The purpose of OTH is to strengthen science and math education for middle school girls in this rural region. Currently, these students have limited access to innovative math and science curricular offerings, or role models of women in scientific and mathematic careers. This particular part of the country is typical of most rural settings in the socio-cultural bias it holds against women working outside the home, especially in what are typically perceived as male occupations. Therefore, a choice of science or mathematics as a career would not only create physical distance, because it would involve leaving family and community, it would challenge regional stereotypes regarding women's roles in society. The OTH project aims specifically at this sensitive age group in the hopes of "inoculating middle school girls" with the science and math bug, while at the same time "immunizing them against" peer pressure that might dissuade them from continuing their interest in science or math (Kemp, Wing, & Gordon, 2000).

Studies show that girls are drawn to math and science through active and cooperative learning settings rather than competitive, individualistic approaches (Thom, 2002). Hence, the Student Component of OTH consists of a series of workshops or conferences, which include cooperative—exploratory, hands-on science and math investigations. These investigations emphasize the appropriate use of scientific investigative methods, problem solving, critical thinking, and decision-making processes. All workshop activities are selected so as to meet the National Science Education Standards [NSES] (National Research Council [NRC], 1996), as well as the Missouri "Show Me Standards" (Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 1998). In addition, workshop activities are conducted by women scientists and mathematicians; providing the students with positive role models of women who have succeeded in a variety of areas in math and science. Moreover, each girl has been assigned a female college mentor who participates in workshop activities with the girls, and communicates with them between conferences. Several authorities in the field of educational research state that the availability of female role models among peers, as well as among teachers and professionals, is essential to the progress of young women in science (West, 2000; Thom, 2002). Many girls need role models to help them imagine their futures in math and science.

The second component of the OTH project targets the girls' middle school science teachers. The Teacher Component includes providing these professional educators with a variety of curricular materials from sources (FOSS, Fischer, Carolina Biological, Vernier) otherwise not funded in these rural districts. These materials emphasize the nature of science and math—both in content and process, scientific thinking and literacy, technology, and interdisciplinary teaching. In addition, teachers participate in the same workshop activities as their students, and are provided with training needed to implement new curricular materials. The teachers are also involved in a three credit hour graduate course focusing on women in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. This course explores historical and current issues of women in these fields, and discusses strategies that the teachers can use to foster a climate of more equitable inclusion of girls in science and mathematics classes. Hence, the remainder of this paper reports the middle school teachers' assessments of impact regarding the OTH intervention in terms of these two project components.

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OTH Project Impact

Survey data gathered from the sixteen OTH teachers participating in the project, and enrolled in the graduate course on "Women in Science" provides a formative assessment of the project's impact regarding (a) classroom teaching and learning behaviors, and (b) students' attitudes, interest, and performance in science and mathematics. The survey employed a five point Likert-type format ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

The first section of the survey includes questions related to classroom teaching and learning behaviors. The questions were based on standards of quality science instruction as outlined by the NSES (NRC, l996). These standards for instruction are also supported in the literature as instructional techniques that motivate the interest and participation of adolescent girls in math and science classes. Each question asks teachers to report if they agree or disagree that participation in OTH has helped them provide instruction that more closely mirrors these standards.

The second section of the survey includes questions regarding the behavior of the OTH girls, and whether or not their teachers felt that OTH participation had (a) increased the girls' interest and performance in the science/math classroom setting, (b) fostered an awareness of careers related to science/math, (c) encouraged the girls to expand upon their science/math course work, (d) fostered a better understanding of the connection of science/math to the girls' lives, and (e) motivated the girls about science/math to the point that they were sharing their OTH experiences with other students (all cited as OTH project goals).

Tables 1 and 2 provide the overall frequency and distribution of instances represented in the two sections of the survey data. They serve to represent specific response patterns and illustrate how typical or atypical a pattern was. Data response patterns shared in the text below represent teacher responses that agreed or strongly agreed with survey statements.

In response to the first section of the survey, OTH teachers consistently reported that teaching and learning behaviors had been influenced by OTH offerings. Fifteen of sixteen teachers (mean = 4.25) reported that they are able to offer more project-based learning opportunities for their students. Fourteen of sixteen teachers (mean = 3.88) confirmed that they are able to provide their students more problem-based learning opportunities, and that these opportunities more closely illustrate the true nature of science (mean = 3.88). In addition, thirteen of sixteen (mean = 3.94) OTH teachers provided that their students are more actively involved in exploratory science and math investigations. Ten of the sixteen teachers (mean = 3.69) stated that their students are involved in more group tasks. This is especially important considering that studies dating from the mid-1980's show that girls are drawn to math and science through active and cooperative learning settings (Thom, 2002). Thirteen of sixteen (mean = 3.81) OTH teachers, participating in the survey, reported that they feel they are better equipped to meet federal and state guidelines for math and science instruction. Twelve of the sixteen (mean = 3.88) teachers reported that their students have more opportunities to locate, gather, analyze and apply information presented in math and science classes, and that they feel more capable of helping their students make connections with these fields of study to their everyday lives (mean = 3.81). Although only seven of the sixteen teachers (mean = 3.19) reported that they use fewer worksheets, eleven of the sixteen teachers (mean = 3.94) cited that they are able to do less lecturing and offer a more hands-on approach to science. It is important to note that one OTH teacher commented on the survey that she was already teaching in the manner described by survey items, and therefore disagreed (illustrated in lower ratings) with survey statements.

The final item on the survey provided OTH teachers with the opportunity to offer an open-ended response regarding OTH impact. Overwhelmingly, the teachers reported that they enjoy the time to talk and network with teachers from other schools. The following quote from one teacher survey illustrates this point.

The time spent with other science teachers has been encouraging to me. We share experiences and ideas, which help me feel a part of something important. The contact with university professors has been encouraging also. It's overwhelming sometimes, as on person striving to make a difference. This connection has made me feel not quite so alone out there!

The second section of the survey, asked teachers to respond to items related to the impact OTH has had on the girls participating in project activities. Because two of the sixteen teachers failed to respond to this portion of the survey, results for this portion of the assessment are based on the responses of the remaining fourteen teachers. However, all fourteen teachers agreed or strongly agreed (means ranging from 4.21 to 4.57) that participation in OTH had increased the girls' interest and performance in the science/math classroom setting, had fostered an awareness of careers related to science/math, had fostered a better understanding of the connection of science/math to the girls' lives, and had motivated the girls about science/math to the point that they were sharing their OTH experiences with other students. Twelve of the fourteen teachers (mean = 4.29) reported that OTH had encouraged the girls to expand upon their science/math course work. Individual OTH workshop student and parent evaluations serve to corroborate teacher survey responses.

Student Comments

"This is a very fun thing to do on a Saturday."

"I think that this is a great thing and I am glad that I was chosen to be in it."

"I wish it would last longer. I'm in the 8th grade...this is the last year for me."

"Thank you! I learned so much! Opening the Horizon is a GREAT program!"

"Thanks for the effort. I love the program."

"All the activities are very fun and planned out. The mentors were great! I loved everything!"

"The hands-on activities make you WANT to participate!"

Parent Comments

"I personally enjoy the program very much. I think our entire family is learning from our participation. Talk about Real Quality Time!"

"I think this is a wonderful program. It has my daughter opening up her mind and thinking about many different areas to explore for possible career fields. Thank you!"

"I am thrilled that my daughter has gotten the chance to participate in OTH! Thank you!"

"My daughter really surprised me this week when she searched for a place to use water left in a 1/2 full water bottle—instead of throwing perfectly good water down the drain."

"This program is great! I really appreciate my daughter's opportunity to do this."

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