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Teachers Significantly Impact Girls' Science Views


More than parents or peers, teachers are a major factor in developing girls' interest in science, according to high school science teacher Dr. Michael Papadimitriou. Girls who liked a high school science teacher had positive views about the course and science. Included: Ideas for developing girls' (and boys') interest in science.

A high school science teacher for 20 years, Dr. Michael Papadimitriou began to notice some trends that disturbed him a few years ago. One was that fewer of his talented students were pursuing careers in science or engineering. He also noted the continued under representation of women in the sciences and that many of his high-performing female students were bypassing science study in college and science careers.

"Regardless of the blame or cause, the loss to our society has been tremendous," he told Education World. "So many very talented girls have been steered away from science."

Dr. Papadimitriou began to interview girls in science courses, which led to his book, What Girls Say About Their Science Education Experiences: Is Anybody Really Listening?. What Dr. Papadimitriou learned in part is that society still subtly discourages girls from pursuing careers in science, but a positive experience in a high school class and an understanding teacher can heavily influence a girl's attitude toward science.

Dr. Papadimitriou is the science department chairman at Caney Creek High School, in the Conroe (Texas) Independent School District, and also teaches physics and advanced chemistry. He also is an adjunct professor in the alternative certification program at Kingswood College.

Dr. Papadimitriou spoke with Education World about his findings, and the need to continue to nurture interest in the sciences among girls, and boys as well.

Dr. Michael Papadimitriou

Education World: What surprised you most about girls' comments about their science education experiences?

Dr. Michael Papadimitriou: Well, I was really surprised at the degree to which the girls reported teacher attributes as influential to their experiences. Basically, for the girls in the study, the teacher came to epitomize the course and the scientific discipline. Perhaps because of limited experience with different science disciplines, the girls closely associated their high school teachers' personal qualities with the attributes of the traditional scientific disciplines.

In fact, the girls described situations in which the personality traits of their teachers were more powerful and influential than course content or instructional strategies with respect to their opinions of their experiences. For the girls in my study, for example, their chemistry teachers were chemistry and their biology teachers were biology. In short, liking the teacher meant liking the subject.

Secondly, while research, in general, suggests certain instructional preferences by girls for science instruction, the girls in my study reported preferences for a wide range of instructional strategies and techniques. For the most part, I think their preferences just reflected their varied, individual learning styles.

Thirdly, I was surprised at how acutely aware the girls were of the differential expectations society holds for men and women. In fact, they expressed feeling great social pressure to fulfill traditional female role expectations. Unfortunately, while these expectations may have changed somewhat, especially with respect to the participation of women in science, they may not have changed enough. In fact, the girls who planned for science careers reported the perception of subtle discouragement from family and friends. Simple statements like, "You can't have a family if you become a physician," have potential to do great harm. Also, sadly, these unfounded generalizations can be very discouraging.

Lastly and most importantly, I was surprised at the inability of the girls to recall their elementary science experiences. In fact, they pretty much asserted that they really didn't do science in elementary school. Also, the activities they recalled were simple discrete events such as nature study or simple projects. In general, I get the feeling that science was not a major part of their elementary experience. Since these girls were in elementary school in the 1990's, I find this trend alarming, to say the least. Apparently, despite a great deal of rhetoric, science may still be a neglected part of elementary curricula.

"For the girls in my studytheir chemistry teachers were chemistry and their biology teachers were biology. In short, liking the teacher meant liking the subject," says Dr. Michael Papadimitriou, author of What Girls Say About Their Science Education Experiences.

EW: Which seems to have the most influence on girls' attitudes toward science: their families, their teachers, or their friends?

Dr. Papadimitriou: Without a doubt, the most influential entity on girls' attitudes toward science, depending on how you define attitudes, has to be society in general. Subtle expectations greatly influence girls' self-perceptions, role expectations, their perceptions of science, and their ability to participate in science.

However, more specifically, according to the girls, by far, their teachers have been most directly influential on their attitudes toward science. In fact, my interview sessions almost always turned to teacher attributes, qualities, and influence. Also, the girls recognized the role of their teachers in their own decisions to pursue further science participation.

In addition, the girls admitted the ability of a teacher to make a student love or hate science. While the girls acknowledged the great influence of their parents on their lives, they all claimed that their parents were supportive of whatever they wanted to pursue in the future. Likewise, the girls suggested that their friends had very little influence on their science attitudes and participation. Interestingly, while they recognized the existence of peer pressure, they all felt somewhat immune to it themselves.

EW: How do some girls' attitudes about math affect their views of science?

Dr. Papadimitriou: In my study, the participants reported a sort of epiphany in which the qualitative nature of science emerged. For most, this epiphany seemed to occur in high school chemistry. At this time, science suddenly becomes very quantitative and mathematical. This new nature of science does not match previous experience. I believe that this true, quantitative nature of science is not well communicated to students in early science instruction. Thus, the science kids may be experiencing in early grades may be fun, enjoyable, and interesting -- it's just not science. Some kids grow to love nature study or collecting or wildlife management while believing these areas to be science.

When students finally realize that science is something other than what they assumed it to be, one of four things seems to happen. In my study, some of the girls rejected further science study because of mathematics. Others embraced and enjoyed the newfound quantitative nature of science. Still others tolerated the mathematical nature of science in order to pursue science-related career goals. Lastly, others realized that some areas of science are less quantitative than others and chose to focus pursuits in these less quantitative areas.

EW: What should elementary teachers do to encourage girls' interest in science?

Dr. Papadimitriou: Because of gender role expectations in our society, boys are much more likely than girls to participate in science-related experiences outside of school. As a result, for girls, in-school experiences are very important for interest development in science. Yet, intuitively, I feel that these experiences are equally important for boys and girls. I don't recall doing much science in elementary school. And, as a high school student, I found science important to me because I wanted a science career.

Yet, I don't think it was that important to most of my peers. And, as a high school teacher, I can say that for most of my 20 years of teaching, science has been a neglected part of the curriculum. By far, math and language arts have been the main foci. In fact, no one was the least bit interested in what I taught until Texas instituted science accountability testing for various grades.

I believe that elementary teachers are tremendous people and excellent teachers. However, I believe that science, if it is not already, should be a significant part of the elementary curriculum. I also hope that elementary science experiences are now more reflective of the true quantitative nature of science. The girls in my study recalled a few discrete nature study activities and pseudo-science fair projects that did not transmit the real nature of science.

But they were describing events from a decade ago. Hopefully the situation has changed. I think for the most part, elementary science is more structured and scientific than in the past. Yet, elementary teachers must ensure and guard the quality of science instruction for their students by taking time to teach science in a meaningful way. This goal is achieved through quality, process-oriented, systematic science instruction. Also, it involves ensuring that science instruction is not sacrificed for other aspects of the curriculum.

EW: This may sound silly, but why is it important that more girls enter the sciences?

Dr. Papadimitriou: We don't have enough scientists! Almost everything in our lives is a result of basic and applied science. Since I began teaching about 20 years ago, I've witnessed a continued decline in the number of students pursuing science-related careers. In the past, most of my advanced chemistry and physics students were bound for science careers. Now, they are not. In short, we need to get more students, male and female, interested in science careers.

And, of course, there is the issue of equity. A truly democratic society cannot suffer or tolerate the systematic marginalization of any group of individuals. If a young lady makes a free choice to not pursue science, I can accept and respect her choice. However, I find unacceptable the situation in which a young girl is unknowingly and systematically shaped away from science. I also find unacceptable the situation in which science participation somehow places females at a disadvantage. These situations are too costly to the marginalized individuals and to society for us to tolerate them. We have far too many scientific and medical challenges to even entertain the idea of making science some type of exclusive club. Yet, science continues to be very exclusive for members of traditionally marginalized groups, including girls.

EW: What changes should be made in science instruction so more students --boys and girls -- are inspired to pursue a career in science?

Dr. Papadimitriou: The girls in my study were in elementary school in the 1990's. They recalled sparse, disjointed science activities. I believe that elementary science education has changed since then. Science is a much more integral component in today's elementary curricula. While this instruction should be interesting and hands-on, it also should represent the true nature of science. It should involve mathematics, measurement, and a variety of process skills that represent real science. Most importantly, science instruction should not create a conception of something that does not exist. Also, as students become older, they should be exposed to scientists and science careers. Most kids have limited opportunities to interact with scientists and to hear about what they do. It's difficult to aspire to a career that you don't know exists.

In high school, teachers need to use varied strategies to meet the needs of the varied learning styles of students. I think science needs to be restored as a core subject in the high school. For some time, science, in my opinion, has taken a backseat to math and language arts instruction. In fact, science course requirements have not been that rigorous until recent accountability demands have necessitated changes. Students need science instruction that meets their needs. Perhaps not all students need high school chemistry or physics. Yet, students do need basic scientific literacy. However, in all classes, they deserve meaningful, high level instruction.

This e-interview with Dr. Michael Papadimitriou is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Originally published 11/11/2004; updated 05/30/2006