Women making slow, sure strides in science, math

By Martha Irvine

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 22 2011 9:36 a.m. MDT

"But what they don't realize is that other people don't know either."

Christina Davis, another student who was in Harbron's lab when Allred was there, remembers feeling stressed out by her need to be perfect, to have all the answers. She balked, at first, when Harbron refused to tell her what result she should expect in an experiment.

But Davis says she soon learned to love exploring the unknown in experiments, so much so that she, too, eventually decided to pursue a doctorate in chemistry instead of going to medical school.

"I stopped following the plan I had written when I was 7 and opened myself up to new possibilities," says Davis, who's now in the PhD program at the University of Texas and currently studying in South Korea.

Increasingly, some institutions are finding value in more formal all-women's programs in the STEM fields.

The all-women's Smith College in Massachusetts, for instance, bucked its liberal arts tradition and started an engineering program 10 years ago — a decision other all-women's schools are following.

Some students come to Smith knowing they want to be engineers. Others are drawn into the program by an introductory class called "Engineering for Everyone."

Another interesting result: Most of the students in the Smith program have ended up choosing mechanical or electrical engineering — specialties within that field that women have tended to avoid.

The program is also growing, averaging 20 students a year until this year, when that number doubled, says Donna Riley, an associate professor of engineering at Smith who helped found the program.

"Our teachers are stretched," Riley says of the uptick. "But it's a good problem to have."

Meanwhile, other institutions are targeting younger students, since research has shown that girls tend to lose interest in science and math in middle school. That research also has shown that income plays a greater role than gender when it comes to students who make it to the highest levels of the STEM fields.

That's why Pamela Clute, a math lecturer who is also assistant vice provost for academic partnerships at the University of California, Riverside, developed summer and after-school math programs for middle school girls — many of them from low-income neighborhoods.

She calls her program and its participants GEMS — Girls Excelling in Mathematics with Success.

The curriculum, she says, incorporates topics that the teen girls tell her they're interested in. They might be asked to solve math problems that incorporate questions about fashion and cell phones, for instance. They also are allowed to work in groups.

"If you say, algebra, people tend to vomit," Clute quips. But if you can show them how it applies to real life, she says, that attitude changes.

An interest in science and math was never an issue for Allred. When she was in middle school, she was asking questions at the dinner table that always seemed to spark an answer related to either topic.

Once, noticing that ice cubes get smaller in the freezer over time, she asked, "Where do ice cubes go?" her mother recalled. "And we would have a conversation around the dinner table about sublimation."

Then she'd go to school and tell her teacher about how a solid like an ice cube can turn to gas — "but never in a braggart way."

"She absorbed everything and liked to share it," her mom says. "And that feeling of success would motivate her to study more."

That motivation carried her to Yale, where she is now balancing parenthood with her studies. She and her husband Jacob Allred had a daughter, Anna, this past spring.

Allred hinted at their plan when she interviewed with various doctoral programs.

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