I want to note three recent articles about science education. They may be dots worth connecting to each other, or they may not. I welcome your hypotheses, well grounded or tentative.
- Via Michael Berube: “Women Gaining on Men in Advanced Fields”. It seems like we’ve heard this kind of result recently but here again, you have your choice of how to spin the story: are women catching up, or are men falling behind? From the article:
Women now earn the majority of diplomas in fields men used to dominate – from biology to business – and have caught up in pursuit of law, medicine and other advanced degrees.
Even with such enormous gains over the past 25 years, women are paid less than men in comparable jobs and lag in landing top positions on college campuses.
Federal statistics released Thursday show that in many ways, the gender gap among college students is widening. The story is largely one of progress for women, stagnation for men.
Women earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees in business, biological sciences, social sciences and history. The same is true for traditional strongholds such as education and psychology.
In undergraduate and graduate disciplines where women trail men, they are gaining ground, earning larger numbers of degrees in math, physical sciences and agriculture. …
Women who work full time earn about 76 percent as much as men, according to the Institute of Women’s Policy Research. Women are underrepresented in full-time faculty jobs, particularly in fields such as physical sciences, engineering and math.
“We clearly have a long way to go,” said Van Ummersen, vice president for the council’s Center for Effective Leadership. She said some universities are replacing retiring professors, giving women a chance to move into tenured positions.
The enrollment of men in professional degree programs is declining.
“There’s every reason to celebrate the success of women. And one has to be concerned about what’s happening with men,” said Russ Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, a research arm of the Education Department.
Researchers say that men, for different reasons, are not enrolling in or completing college programs with the same urgency as women.
One reason is a failure by schools to teach boys well at an early age, leading to frustration by high school. A second is a recognition by young men that they can land, if only temporarily, some decent-paying jobs without a college degree.
Boys need to have their aspirations raised just as girls have, said Tom Mortenson, senior scholar for The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. By middle school, he said, many boys are tuning out and the problem is only getting worse.
“Women have been making educational progress, and the men are stuck,” he said. “They haven’t just fallen behind women. They have fallen behind changes in the job market.”
So fewer men are going to college, and maybe elementary school, middle school, and high school are not hetting boys interested and engaged. (Presumably the girls are interested and engaged, but here’s a little secret for you middle school teachers out there: some girls are good at faking engagement in your boring classes.) We’ll get to the question of engagement in just a moment. If our schools are turning anyone off to learning, there’s a problem we ought to fix.
But … once again the numbers we see reflected in the degrees earned is not reproduced in the workplace. Look, especially, at academic jobs in chemistry, physics, math, engineering. The gender imbalances are still there. (Also, there’s that wage gap.) Rather than diving into speculation about the cause(s) of the gap, let me just throw a question out there: Do women need to earn the majority of degrees in a field in order to start increasing their numbers in that field’s professoriate?
- From the Boston Globe: “Early Education Key to Scientific Career Choice”. I might have written a different headline for this one. From the article:
Teenage career preferences are a more reliable indicator than mathematical aptitude for predicting which students become scientists, suggesting a flaw in federal education strategies, a University of Virginia study found.
The federally funded survey of 3,359 students who were in the eighth grade in 1988 found that those who expressed interest in science yet made only average math scores had a 34 percent chance of graduating college with a science or engineering degree.
Among those with above-average math scores and no preference for science, only 19 percent of the college graduates earned such degrees, according to the study led by Robert Tai, an assistant professor of science education at the University of Virginia.
The findings suggest that mandatory testing policies, such as the No Child Left Behind Law promoted by the Bush administration as a solution to low-performing US schools, might worsen the nation’s output of scientists by distracting teachers from field trips and other activities that stimulate student interest in sciences, Tai said.
The way I’m reading these results: If you’re serious about pursuing science, you’ll study science. To the extent you need to be able to learn math to do this, you will. Indifferent marks in math while you’re a teenager may just be due to your being a teenager (and thus paying attention to other stuff besides school work). Teachers certainly can help stimulate an interest in science (as I‘ve noted before), but that interest can be sparked by other people and experiences, too. (Still, it’s undeniable that high-stakes testing pretty much stinks up the educational experience.)
- From Inside Higher Ed: Overlooked Again — Community Colleges and Science. It turns out that people who take classes at community college can end up earning degrees in sciences. Who knew? From the article:
Several members of the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering, a Congressionally created group that advises the National Science Foundation, openly expressed surprise Thursday after presentations that shook their notions of community colleges.
Multiple members said that they had no idea that so many science and math bachelor’s and master’s degrees go to students who have taken at least one class at a community college.
According to NSF’s 2001 Survey of Recent College Graduates, 46 percent of bachelor’s and master’s degree recipients in 1999 and 2000 in “life and related sciences” had attended community colleges. Students who had taken a class or classes at a community college also accounted for 42 percent of computer and math sciences degrees at or above the bachelor’s level, and 40 percent of engineering degrees.
Those of us “on the ground” already knew what these folks advising the NSF are just finding out: people don’t go to community college because they’re dumb! Frequently, folks who start out at community college and end up at four-year-colleges or universities are smart as whips. Their educational paths may have been determined by financial concerns (i.e., no money for a fancy tuition), or it may have taken them some time to get around to college (because they were working or traveling or taking care of families or whatever). Good articulation agreements between CCs and universities are essential (so there’s general agreement about what “Chem 1A” means), but there’s no shortage of aptitude from the CC folks.