Real, Real Science

Jane Margolis

In an article entitled "Girlie Science," the author makes mention of a recent University of Leeds study showing that boys and girls have very different interests when it comes to science.

According to the study, which surveyed British 15-year-olds, "the responses of the boys reflect strong interest in destructive technologies and events," such as the effects of chemical weapons on the human body or how a meteor strike might cause disasters on the earth; whereas girls claimed interest in finding a cure for cancer or AIDS, and knowing how an eating disorder affects the human body.

The article's author notes that the study's results have British researchers calling for the creation of separate syllabi to better meet the segregated interests of the sexes, and comments, "Men and women differ in their interests. But should we overhaul curricula -- and risk giving one side an inferior education -- just to pander to them?"

The article is quite clever -- in a glib kind of way -- and makes the valid point that both genders should have access to all sorts of science and learning opportunities. But I think the article also perpetuates a mistaken interpretation of "female-friendly" curriculum, and what I believe are the intentions of the University of Leeds educators.

To make science relevant to girls -- by showing the links between science and the issues that many girls (but not all girls) have been shown to be interested in -- does not imply "inferior" curriculum and/or girls being "pandered to." After all, finding a cure for cancer is no light-weight topic. Neither is bulimia. Or AIDS.

An attempt to make curriculum relevant to girls' concerns need not exclude teaching the same "hard" science that goes into the study of "blowing things up;" it simply identifies applications of the science that resonate with many girls (and of course boys.) "Female-friendly" curriculum is NOT watered-down curriculum; it is not hand-holding.

It is about designing pedagogy and curriculum that is effective in showing how science is linked to things that have meaning for a broader grouping of students. It is about adding context and motivation, not subtracting content.

Yes, both boys and girls should have opportunity to learn about bulimia and "destructive technologies."

OK, accuse me of not having a sense of humor and needing to lighten up, butI think that the title "Girlie Science" is catchy because it plays off deep-seated notions of "girlie" as weak and inferior, the opposite of "real" science (defined as "hard" and male.)

If this topic interests you, I recommend you read Female-Friendly Science by Sue Rosser.

Jane Margolis is a Research Educationist at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and a member of NCWIT's Social Science Network. She co-authored the book, Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, with Allan Fisher (MIT Press, 2002.)