Girls in science classrooms

A few weeks ago, I started student teaching at a rural public school in western New York. After my previous student teaching experiences in Rochester city and suburban schools, nearly everything about this rural setting seemed different. Surprisingly, the biggest change at this new placement wasn’t political climate, socioeconomic demographics, or student personality…it was gender.

From the moment I stepped into the classroom, I thought, “Wow, this is a difficult environment for girls.” The distribution and division of male and female students caught me off guard. Nearly all the students in the class were boys. Startled, I counted the number of girls in the room: in a class of eighteen students, only three were female. The trio of girls sat in the corner of the room, several tables away from the larger cluster of male students. Although my cooperating teacher engaged them in conversation at their table, they never integrated with the rest of the students.

I wondered how this section of high school Earth Science had ended up with so few girls. I assumed this particular class was unusual, but when the students for the next class filed in the gender trend continued: I counted two girls in a class of fifteen students; although I should note that another girl was absent this day. I watched the two girls closely. They sat together the whole class, and spoke only to each other for the entire period. The girls pretty much ignored the boys, and vice versa.

I asked my cooperating teacher (CT) his thoughts about the gender structure of his student body. He noted that the girls usually stuck together in the class, and that he was glad they had each other. I pressed him further, asking about their participation in groups and class discussion. He replied the girls were generally quiet, even though they were relatively bright students.

As I continued to observe and teach at this new school, I paid special attention to the gender dynamics in the room: How often do the girls speak? Where do they sit? What roles do they take during group work? I noticed that the girls rarely spoke to their male peers. When my CT placed the girls with male students for collaborative group work, they simply worked with each other and struggled to engage with the male students. The boys in the class did not seem to mind working with each other, but rarely made an effort to collaborate with the girls. When the two genders did speak, interactions ranged from tense to apathetic. I continue to wonder if these types of interactions are specific to the Earth Science class environment in which the girls are so outnumbered, of if this is general social trend of the school.

The next logical question, of course, is why are there so few girls in Earth Science in the first place? When I asked my CT, he hypothesized that since Earth Science was not a graduation requirement, the rest of the high school girls might have chosen to skip Earth Science in favor of Chemistry. He mentioned that a woman taught the Chemistry classes at the school, which might have influenced the female students’ decision to skip Earth Science and opt for Chemistry. Upon hearing his theory, my mind immediately flit to conversations about role models in science. Were the other high school girls gravitating towards a woman scientist because they  unconsciously or consciously longed for a female role model? What would that mean for my students?

As a minority female in science, I often muse about my role as a science teacher. Is it arrogant to believe that I could serve as a role model for minority girls? For my students’ sake, I sincerely hope that my presence as their teacher will positively affect their opinions about women in science. I could go on for pages about my feelings on gender and race in the classroom, but perhaps that is a topic for another post. For now, I will end by reaffirming yet another teacher goal: Be an ally to all students, particularly those who are underrepresented in the classroom.

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