Education & Workforce Development

Program hopes to boost women in science: IUPUI to put female science students under one roof to nurture their interest in field often dominated by men

July 18, 2005

The "girls aren't good at science" myth still exists, according to many science educators. That is why a new School of Science program at IUPUI hopes to do its part to dispel the label many say is created as early as elementary school.

IUPUI's Women in Science House will literally house together women studying science, providing a nurturing environ ment for female students who often feel isolated, a factor that can cause them to change majors, said Pam Crowell, director of the program and associate professor of biology.

"One effective strategy for getting more women into the sciences is to have young students seeing others doing it," said Crowell, who has a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "They all say, 'I want to be around other students like me.'"

Crowell said she was encouraged to be a primary-education teacher growing up, but that profession didn't interest her.

"I followed my own nose into science," said Crowell, whose primary research is in cancer pharmacology.

But following her nose took discipline and the willingness to often go it alone because a network of women did not exist for her.

So when she was asked to run the IUPUI program, she knew the impact it could have.

Developing camaraderie

Nearly 40 women will move into an oncampus student apartment building-two per fully furnished, Internet-wired apartment-when the fall semester starts. A common area will house a computer lab and other amenities. Monthly activities will promote a sense of camaraderie often lacking in the classroom and beyond, Crowell said.

Students will receive a $1,000 scholarship to be used toward the cost of housing, which is $560 a month. Rent is in addition to the normal costs for tuition and books.

In addition to living with other female science students, the program will provide access to members of internal and external advisory boards, made up of women employed in science-related fields.

The board members will act as mentors, Crowell said, and provide evidence to the students that there are other women out there like them.

Most women who study science go into biology and psychology, although some people say the predominance of women in biology is due to its being on the pre-medical-school track.

Fewer women study physics, math and computer science, Crowell said.

The National Science Foundation supports those findings. Less than 30 percent of bachelor's degrees in computer science go to women, yet 77 percent of the degrees in psychology go to women.

With the prevalence of computer and video games played by boys as soon as they can pick up a joystick, it's no wonder they follow the computer path in school, said Carl Cowen, dean of the School of Science, who modeled the IUPUI program after one at Purdue University.

That program started 10 years ago in response to a dwindling work force in science and engineering.

"The most logical way to do that is to increase the number of under-represented groups in those areas," said Barbara Clark, director of the Purdue Women in Science program.

The Purdue program started with 50 women and now caps it at 75. Unlike the IUPUI program, which will admit women of all classes, Purdue limits the program to first-year students, although a few stay in the house as mentors.

But like the IUPUI program, the underlying motivation for having women live together is to provide the opportunity to observe other women doing the same thing.

"It takes ability and support to be successful," Clark said.

The program measures its success with a method that tracks graduation rates. Using a six-year time frame, the program tracks graduation rates and grade point average of all female students considered "high achieving," a common benchmark that considers specific high school achievements, SAT scores and other criteria.

Of all high-achieving female students, those who participated in the program had a 50-percent graduation rate in science; those not in the program had a 25-percent graduation rate. The same results were experienced for women who began the program from 1997 through 1999, the earliest starting point the six-year time frame can measure to date.

The program has little effect on students considered low achievers, Clark said.

"When there's no support for them, it's difficult for them to maintain the commitment. If we don't get them at the front end, they never make it to the back end."

Grade school beginnings

Many say the front end is elementary school.

Studies show boys are encouraged more to follow a science path. A survey done by Bayer Corp. found 65 percent of parents said science was a "very desirable" career choice for their sons, but only 41 percent said the same thing for their daughters.

Teachers have higher expectations in science for boys and are more likely to call on them to answer complicated questions, the survey found. By fifth grade, boys express a more positive view of science than girls do.

While a fair number of girls take biology in high school, about half as many girls as boys take chemistry. And three times as many boys take physics, according to the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education.

By the time high school graduation rolls around, significantly fewer girls are in the science pipeline.

Once in college, the more mathematical the science, the fewer women there are studying it; physics and computer science are far behind biology and even further behind social sciences like psychology, according to the National Science Foundation.

Once out of college, women hold less than a third of math and computer science jobs.

And while the culture is shifting, many say there are still barriers.

Barbara Simpson, 58, got a bachelor's and master's degree in chemistry from IUPUI more than 30 years ago.

When she decided to minor in physics, she was the only female taking the required courses for that distinction.

"Many women, then and now, in such a situation face hostility, and they'll say, 'Why should I put up with this?' And they get out."

Simpson chose to stay and went on to work as a scientist at Eli Lilly and Co. for the next 31 years. She retired four years ago and will serve on the IUPUI Women in Science external advisory board.

"It's not always overt," Simpson said of the barriers for women. "But I always say, if Strawberry Shortcake were doing the shooting in video games, there'd be more women in computer science."
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