Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Untangling the Threads of a Complex Knot

When I was a postdoc at Duke University, I spent some time volunteering at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. I helped visitors smush strawberries and extract DNA for the grand opening of the Nature Research Center, a new wing of the museum. In the Micro World Investigate lab, I once spent about 10 minutes staring at pond water through a microscope with an intensely focused little boy. On the stage of the Daily Planet, I gave a talk on bacterial symbionts of insects called “Bugs in Bugs” (I also had the honor of testing the AV equipment in advance of E. O. Wilson’s visit later that month). I loved my time volunteering at the museum. It is a valuable asset to North Carolina and beyond, and, even though I’ve moved away, I still consider myself a strong supporter.

It was in this context that I was surprised to read a Tweet last Saturday pointing to an announcement for a boys only summer camp at the Museum called “Science of Ick”. The announcement began “BOYS – it’s time to get icky and this camp is only for you!”. Navigating the museum’s Programs and Events page revealed that the morning slot of the first week of summer camps offered two choices for K-1 kids: a boys only “Science of Ick” and a girls only “Damsels and Dragons".

The explicit gender segregation of the camps and the language used to advertise them sparked discussion on Twitter (for a partial recap, see SciCurious’s Storify here). It’s no secret that girls and women face gender bias in STEM education and careers (for example, zero girls took the AP Computer Science Test in Mississippi and Montana in 2013). Many women who are science professionals have personally experienced bias in their K-12 education, graduate training and careers. The idea that girls would be excluded from the “icky” camp and offered only the “fairy tale” camp prompted some to recall similar instances in their own past. The ensuing Twitter conversation offered a range of valuable and balanced perspectives, including that single-sex education has benefits for girls and young women and that drawing young girls into science camp with a fairy tale theme is a reasonable strategy for increasing girls’ exposure to STEM.

On Monday, Liz Baird, the Director of Education for the museum, provided a thoughtful explanation for the gender-specific summer camps, highlighting the museum’s history of targeted efforts to attract girls to science. She also stated that “current research indicates there is added value in learning in a single-sex setting, especially when instructors use best practices for gender-specific teaching”.

The question of whether single-sex education results in improvement in academic performance, self-esteem, school attendance or really any measurable outcome is hotly contested. The September 23, 2011 issue of Science included an Education Forum piece strongly against single-sex education, which prompted a number of letters in support. A cursory review of the recent literature turns up studies showing no appreciable difference, some benefits and some harm in outcomes for both boys and girls in single-sex educational settings (for example, this, this, and this - apologies for the paywalls).

Although it is 15 years old, a report from the American Association of University Women offers a carefully considered framework for thinking about single-sex education. One of the report’s major and important points is that “single-sex classes can be alternately empowering (because they are a “safe” place for learning and discussion) or oppressing (because they may reinforce sex stereotypes)”.

For me, this is the crux of the issue with the museum’s boys and girls only summer camps. Liz Baird’s statement points to the boys and girls only residential programs for 6th graders as an example of a successful single-sex program. These two programs are described on the museum’s webpage with exactly the same language. Both programs appear to be designed with the same overall educational aims. Gender segregation in this case can be a positive opportunity for girls and boys to reflect on the particular challenges they face in school and science as girls and boys. I can see these programs fulfilling the AAUW report’s idea of an “empowering” single-sex opportunity.

By contrast, I’m concerned that the museum has unintentionally reproduced a gender stereotype binary with the structure of the K-1 “Science of Ick” and “Damsels and Dragons” camps. The camps are offered at the same time, but with different content and themes and explicitly restricted by gender. Why introduce the stereotypes of boys as rambunctious, outdoorsy Huck Finns and girls as fairy tale damsels here? Based on Baird’s statement, this dichotomy seems to be an accident of the gradual development of programs, but I worry that it undermines the positive goals of single-sex education. There is not “girl” science and “boy” science, but science. What of the rambunctious girls and the fairy tale-loving boys?  I don’t think this is intentional, but as an outside observer and a woman in science, I think it sends the wrong message.

In a response to SciCurious’s Storify, Liz Baird said the museum may “flip flop” the subject matter next year. Instead, how about replicating the structure of the 6th grade program? Offer K-1 boys and girls only camps on the same content in the same year. If resource restrictions make it impossible to offer the exact same camps at the same time, break up the binary and offer the girls only camp in one week and the boys only camp in another week. “Science of Ick” and “Fairy Tales and Dragons” for all.

The under-representation of girls and women in science and technology is a complex, tangled problem. I am extremely thankful for dedicated educators and other professionals who are working to address this issue. As we pull on the threads to untangle this knot, we may find that we inadvertently tightened the knot elsewhere. We all have the same goal, and I'm hopeful that by working together, we can get this knot undone. 

(Thanks for reading. I welcome comments and discussion, but please note that I read and approve comments before they are published.)

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