Girls 'disengage' from high school science

November 18, 2009

DeKalb, Ill. -- High school girls are bored, disengaged and stressed in science classes when compared to boys, Northern Illinois University researchers say.

And teachers might not be doing enough to change the situation.

Jennifer Schmidt and M Cecil Smith, professors in the College of Education's Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, studied 244 high school students and 13 science teachers during the 2008-09 academic year for their "Science in the Moment" project.

Funded by a three-year, $476,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the pair expect their research eventually will help high school science teachers design and deliver lesson plans that best engage and electrify girls as well as boys.

So far, NIU researchers have found that classroom discussions are the only activity to score among the top three most engaging for both boys and girls and are perhaps the optimum way to connect with all science students.

Although much work remains - Schmidt, Smith and members of their research team are still "coding" a hundred hours of video shot in the 12 classrooms to dissect "every utterance from the teachers' mouths" - the early indications confirm that the situation is not a good one for girls.

"We want schools and teachers to be aware," Schmidt said. "Their students are not having the same experiences."

Girls enjoy science less. They concentrate less. They doubt their skills. They're bored. They're stressed. They're less intrigued by a challenge.

Ironically, many girls earn good grades in science but still feel less competent than their grades would indicate. Also, both genders report similar levels of hard work, living up to the teacher's expectations and the value of science to themselves and to their future. Meanwhile, even though more boys than girls told the researchers that science is challenging, boys reported more confidence in their skills and a higher level of concentration in class.

The largest gender difference is in ninth-grade general science classes; the imbalance appears to narrow by the time students reach physics, usually a junior- or senior-level course.

Of great concern to the researchers is their finding that as the challenge of the material rises, girls become less engaged. A similar response is seen concerning the perceived importance of the material. In both cases, boys intensify their engagement.

Girls also respond negatively to "public" activities in science class, such as lab work and giving presentations. They rate lectures and completing work at their seats as the most engaging classroom activities. In contrast, boys eagerly greet opportunities to "show what they know."

More questions are arising as the researchers break down the data, of course: Are girls lacking the necessary support from teachers, parents and peers? How often are teachers or parents sending messages of competence or helplessness to girls? Are these factors that shut them down?

The teachers equally represented both genders, although none of the physics teachers was a woman and all the biology teachers were women. "Biology is the area of science that women tend to go into," Schmidt said.

The study population breaks down fairly evenly between white, black and Latino students.

Some of the data removes gender from the reporting but still contains interesting information for teachers and curriculum committees.

For example, students as a whole enjoy lab work the most but consider it the least important activity in class and less educational than lectures or seatwork. Most important to students are tests - the thing they enjoy the least, the thing that causes them the most stress and the thing they perceive as contributing the least to their learning.

Evidence was gathered through electronic signals sent to the participating students, each of whom had a pager that vibrated when the researcher wanted to gauge reactions to the content.

When signaled, the students immediately reported what they were doing and thinking. They also rated their engagement, enjoyment, anxiety and concentration levels on a prescribed scale.

Schmidt and Smith believe teachers can quickly and personally improve their instruction by conducting similar evaluations by simply asking those pointed questions during class.

"Teachers really should strive to understand student perspectives. They should make an effort to get student feedback in the moment as things are happening," Smith said. "If they assess and understand student voice, they can bring those perspectives."

Now the research team is watching the raw video footage to determine how much time the teachers spend on classroom management, such as taking attendance or making announcements, and how much time is devoted to lectures, discussions, labs and content that deals with science.

They also are measuring who the teachers are addressing - the whole class, an individual, a group - and the function of each utterance. Does it present content knowledge? Does it elaborate to provide a deeper meaning? Is it an open question to students? Does it foster thinking? Is it simply to move the class along, such as an instruction to open their textbooks to a certain page?

Members of the research team have taken several hours of training to prepare for the coding, partly to ensure each member sees the video in the same way. They are coding in pairs and groups, Schmidt said.

The two lead researchers already have begun to share their preliminary findings with the test site high school and will present seven papers in the coming year at national academic conferences.

Meanwhile, Smith is conducting a side project with a doctoral student to examine literacy practices within the context of science class. What kinds of reading and writing are students doing in science? What technology are they using? How are teachers supporting or undermining students' literacy practices?

Two doctoral students and one master's degree candidate also are writing dissertations and theses on the data gathered so far.

Schmidt is optimistic the team members will finish coding their data within the year, but imagines that their analysis of the data will continue for years to come. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," she said.

Northern Illinois University

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