Brownies, skulls, and science education for all

November 9, 2012

An infamous and ill-fated talking Barbie doll once said, “Math class is tough. Let’s go shopping.” At least until public outcry compelled Mattel to take that 1992 doll off the shelf.

Yet that soundtrack still plays for flesh-and-blood girls.

The message—that girls do not have the same aptitude or interest as boys in math and science—is still something to be reckoned with, suggests Mary Murphy, IU professor of psychological and brain sciences who explores the issue in her research.

As Murphy explains, until third or fourth grade, boys and girls show similar abilities in math and science. Then something happens. They start to experience “stereotype threat.”

“When kids become old enough to know the stereotype, we start to see differences in performance and aspirations. They become concerned about either confirming or contradicting stereotypes and show anxiety about performing in this environment,” Murphy says.

This is precisely what the annual Science and Math Day at IU Bloomington was designed to challenge. Every year for the past twenty years, hundreds of girls arrive at the IU Physics department in Swain Hall for the annual Science and Math Day for Brownie Girl Scouts. This year’s event is on November 17. The girls will interact with women scientists from physics, health sciences, chemistry, math, archaeology, and psychological and brain sciences. They rotate from lab to lab, participating in the activities designed by the scientists in each room.

And Brownie Math and Science Day is only one of many ways that IU Bloomington scientists, female and male, are reaching out to improve science education. Erin Carlson, assistant professor of chemical biology at IU Bloomington, has developed a program called Natural Products and Lighting the Fire of Curiosity to stimulate scientific curiosity by exploring natural products, such as flowering plants, which produce compounds that influence our lives significantly. She and her lab members offer the program to local elementary- and middle-school students.

In biology, Associate Profesor Armin Moczek oversees a robust science outreach effort through his lab at IU Bloomington. Moczek, whose specialty is insect biology, has developed nearly a dozen science education modules that align with state teaching standards and are adaptable to all grade levels and age groups. (Just try this “termite-wrangling” experiment described here; you’ll be amazed!)

Moczek and his lab group have expanded their outreach into classes for children with special needs, using the “skulls and teeth” module. Essentially, the module invites students to examine animal skulls to learn about a mammal’s way of life, its diet, and its adpatations. “This module has taken off,” Moczek says. “Eight classes have already registered for it, with more asking for opportunities. But what really thrilled me is that we found a way to make it work for special education students. The unit worked so well that it is clear we will expand this to reach other classes for students with special needs in our local school district and beyond.”

Events such as the Brownie Math and Science Day and the outreach classes offered by Carlson and Moczek are crucial to mitigating “stereotype threat”, says Murphy, of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “Undo some of the misconceptions about science. Convey that science is a collaborative, creative endeavor, that it can help people.”

And national statistics say such messages about science are crucial for all students, girl or boy. According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 report, most U.S. students in grades 4, 8, and 12 fail to reach a proficient level in science assessments. In 2009 data, only “34% of 4th graders, 30% of 8th graders, and 21% of 12th graders performed at or above the proficient level in science. At grade 12, only 4% of black students, 8% of Hispanic students, and 8% of low-income students reached the proficient level,” says the report.  Compared to other nations, U.S. student scores are below that of many countries, including Finland, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Canada, and China.

For more on some of the wide-ranging science outreach efforts offered by IU Bloomington faculty and departments, visit the following links: