Girls Got What? Competitions, Science Careers And Benefits

Yes, I’m certain you have, as I have been, following Science Women’s blog after PZ ‘Pharyngula’ Myers pointed out that she’s live-blogging the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Two things that get to me:

First – like her, I look forward to the day when nobody notices that there is either girls (or boys) are winning science competitions. She said as much a few months ago when girls swept the top awards at the Siemens competition. Much like my earlier blogpost on literacy, the important thing is that young people are taking part.

Secondly – is it true that a competition winner will actually go on to contribute in the field? What factors really do encourage people in careers in science and how significant is this sort of kudos to them?

I also wonder how diverse are the students who make it to ISEF – not ethnicity or gender, but location of school (‘rural vs public vs magnet vs private schools’ as one commentator put it; of interest to me since I’m currently helping with some research on rural and remote schools in Western Australia)?

Of course, the selection is made without knowledge of the backgrounds, but how many of them came from enriched environments? How do we factor in mentoring by grad students / faculty or even parental support? Of course, there are always keen science teachers who are committed to promoting and encouraging their students. Is it that much of a crapshoot?

For example, another NY Times article about Stuyvesant High School, which “led the nation’s schools in finalists in the latest round of the Intel Science Talent Search, the country’s most celebrated high school science competition” – New York Leads the Field in a High School Science Competition:

Katie, a senior whose mother is a librarian and father an electrician, is the only New York State finalist who did not work on a project at an outside research institution. She did her math project, on the nonagon anomaly, in consultation with Peter Brooks, who teaches math and computer science at Stuyvesant.

Yes, she deserves recognition for her work, sure. But note what environment she came from? You may have also noted this NY Times article on the same issue, earlier this year – A Science Prodigy in an Unlikely Place:

Mr. Delgado, 18, one of the 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search, the nation’s most prestigious high school science laurel, won his prize in a way that defied the formula. That formula may not be as unforgiving as E=MC2, but it goes something like this:

A) Attend a top-flight school with high-octane students.

B) Join a freshman program that teaches you how to do research and then perform ever more challenging experiments into the senior year.

C) Pair with scientists and adapt an unresolved sliver of their research.

Is that necessarily true? Looking over the winners that are being lauded as examples of how “any society that relegates women to an underclass is, at the very least, throwing away half their brain trust” – yes, but what may be thrown away if such women are already in an ‘underclass’ NOT based on their gender but based on socio-economic, location and educational factors? Just how many brains are being thrown away regardless of ‘girls kicking arse, doing science’?

On the same day that it is blogged, another news article points out the lack of teacher mentors in the USA, who are presented as a factor in such successes – Do The Math: We’re Lacking.

Like many other states, Georgia suffers from a serious shortage of teachers qualified as math and science instructors.. around the country… why only about 15 percent of American high school students earn math or science credit in rigorous Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs.That represents a lot of missed opportunity in a country that adds 100,000 new computer-related jobs a year. As Bill Gates pointed out in his March testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology, “Only 15,000 students earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science and engineering in 2006, and that number continues to drop.”

“Does the ‘cool factor’ really count?” another news article asked:

Indeed, here at the ISEF, the Kennedy twins are getting a taste of the new competition: The growth of the fair comes primarily from overseas, where contestants from Sweden, India, and even, for the first time, Nigeria showcase the up-and-coming brains of the global scientific community.

“The kind of competitiveness that plays into [events like ISEF] has to in a few years take care of the bigger issue, global competition,” says Skip Fennell, an education professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md. “One level of competition will hopefully infuse the other.”

The US has spent $600 million since 2002 through the National Science Foundation on 52 national projects that attempt to reform the way science and math are taught at the elementary and secondary level. Some of that money has gone to seed local science bowls and math bees, fueling what appears to be a growing interest among kids and parents in math and science smackdowns.

‘Science Smackdowns’? Is that what it takes, a step beyond reality TV gurge like ‘Beauty and the Geek’?

Too few students from urban minority districts and rural areas are enticed by the exploratory aspects of the heavy sciences. Competitive math and science events raise interest, but it’s not enough, experts say.

“In many ways, science fairs and math competitions amplify to the self-selected that they’ve made the right choice, but it doesn’t bring in that other 20 percent that we need,” says Dr. Chappell in Nashville. “We’re trying to push them into math and science, but we haven’t pulled them into math and science.”

So, excuse me if I’m more questioning about this news and wanting to know more rather than just praising to the skies? Because after reading this article about commercially available Science Fair kits, I noticed a few other factors that influence children’s attitudes – It’s A Science Fair, Not the Nobel Prize:

…Professor Bellipanni found that by the early 1990s, more than 60 percent of about 400 national finalists had either been mentored by a professional scientist or prepared their projects in a university or other research lab.

And yes – I found the research paper that is mentioned: The Science Fair Experience: Profile of Science Fair Winners (pdf version here):

The purpose of this investigation was to determine if a significant relationship existed between the criterion variable of receiving or not receiving awards at the 1993 International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) and the predictor variables of resources and facilities, resource personnel, personal costs, time, and personal characteristics…

Nonwinners made significantly more use of high school labs and parents’ or friends’ personal shops. Winners made significantly more use of parents’ or friends’ businesses, medical schools, and other research facilities.

Furthermore in the NY Times article, it appears that science projects can mean profit too:

…Mr. Carlson’s site offers free science projects, but for access to “over 1,000 Super Science Projects Right Now!” he charges $17 a month or $27 a year.

Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said he had seen how these Web sites had flourished, but that parental involvement — or over-involvement — is nothing new.

“It depends how intrusive parents get — if instead of guiding, Mommy and Daddy are helping with the display,” he said. “I’ve judged some science fairs, and it’s clear when parents have done it.”

What’s the point of it all anyway?

And too many kits are more science demonstrations than experiments, he said, which do not give a child “a sense of process, of answering questions,” he said. “The hardest part is often coming up with the question and seeing if the experiment gives them the answer they expected. It’s even better when it doesn’t.”

At the moment, I’m still working on my ‘Educational Resources link’, but you can see how ‘ask an expert’ is a useful feature:

Mr. Hess, whose site has corporate sponsors, said, “We feel it’s important to make resources available to some parents who don’t have the money.” His site also offers an “ask an expert” option, using volunteer scientists to answer questions.

Mr. Carlson says children need to be taught that while science can be fun, it is also hard work. “If you only tell them science is fun, then when it gets to be hard work, you raise their expectations, only to dash them,” he said. “Then they get turned off.”

I have, in my own experience, seen award winners go into fields unrelated to that they won prizes for, for various reasons. Mostly due to finding something else that is their ‘passion’ as opposed to a subject they were pushed into or had an environment that nurtured it in conjunction to the science project.

I also know from my own experience of seeing ‘scholarships’ being handed out to other people to attend a conference – and none of them have demonstrated any particular projects or initiatives, programs or teaching materials that have been brought to my attention… or anyone else’s, it seems. Do people keep tabs on ‘what happens next’? Or is it assumed that the be-all and end-all is the award?

Sure, winners are winners. But I’d like to see progress beyond a medal – and I’d like to know what factors would encourage those like Mr Delgado – because if science teaching professions, more scientists and more progress in science-related fields requires more people in general… then why not keep track of ‘what’s next’?

So, here’s to the research papers and journal articles on the issue and the stats – I’ll keep in touch.

Oh, nearly forgot – Professor Lyn Beazley, eminent neuroscientist and Chief Scientist of Western Australia, will conduct a series of workshops, seminars and media interviews in Johannesburg, Durban, Grahamstown and Bloemfontein” – networking, internationally!

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Filed under All About Me, Challenges to Science, Cool stuff, Current Events, Education, Events, Links Elsewhere, Media, Parenting, Science, Skepticism, Technology

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