A Positive Reaction From Reality Colliding With Misconception

This title may have a “Say What?” nature, but it squares with the impressions that follow.  People of a certain age remember Art Linkletter achieving television immortality through a popular segment titled “Kids Say The Darnedest Things.”  A modern variation is: “Surprising Things You Learn By Quizzing College Students.”  They too give delightfully candid answers to unanticipated questions.

Shippensburg University hosts an annual presentation of student research projects called Minds@Work, celebrating research, scholarship, and creativity.  The collection of projects is drawn from the Colleges of Arts and Science, Business, and Education and Human Services.  An impressive array, especially to someone marginally literate in hard sciences.  I must confess my science courses in high school were enough to satisfy curiosity.  My lone close encounter with a science course at SU was called Man’s Atmospheric Environment, which was edifying but not trajectory altering.  Thus, the current depth of research and the astounding capabilities of the equipment students work on are intriguing.

In this year’s session, one display room was filled with chemistry and biology projects.  While viewing the poster boards and asking questions about the projects, I noticed nearly all the researchers in the room were female.  When I asked if the same proportion existed in their classes, most indicated that was the case.

Obviously, this ran against the grain of conventional wisdom about the difficulties of attracting and engaging women in STEM courses.  So what accounts for this unexpected gender cluster?  Students came from different parts of the state, so geography was not a handy explanation.  Their reasons for enrolling at SU did not center on science.  Familiar factors such as proximity, affordability, and family legacy were influential.

Next reasonable hypothesis was they had strong courses in high school taught by inspiring instructors.  Not so quick there, Sherlock.  Their initial reactions included hesitation, sighs, and headshaking, and not because a strange guy was peppering them with questions.  Most responded that their high school courses and experience were at best average.  Reasons for this assessment of mediocrity included lackluster instruction, lack of modern equipment, and the biased assumption the girls were merely putting in time because the courses were required.

Again, not the expected situation.  Each year, when the results of scholastic science fairs are announced, the sophistication and research depth of the projects are astounding.  In contrast, projects from my era seem like the Flintstones playing with Tinkertoys.  From this came my mistaken assumption that high school science programs were uniformly on the upswing, as technology advanced and knowledge expanded exponentially.

Now, I retain enough from my classes and life experience to understand the pitfalls of drawing broad conclusions from a statistically insignificant sample.  So no declaration that high school science programs are inherently subpar.  Nor do I suffer any anti-high school bias.  I was fortunate to attend a very strong high school in a district that was neither populous nor wealthy.  Our economics course was one semester taught by the wrestling coach.  It was so intensive that what I learned carried me through four college courses.

Programs and initiatives geared toward attracting women to the hard sciences are becoming more prevalent.  Yet here was a group who found their interest despite the relative unattractiveness of their high school courses.  Perhaps the future of achieving gender equality in the sciences is not as bleak as commonly depicted.

What are their plans once they earn degrees?  More than a few are headed to graduate school.  Most are aiming for jobs in medicine, but some are looking toward environmental fields, a few mentioned veterinary medicine, and one wants to work in a zoo.  (I resisted the powerful temptation to ask if she meant politics.)

While the university’s emphasis on involved student research is part of the recalibration of educational approach, it does seem there is a secondary lesson to be gleaned from this story.  A cohort of students is coming in with unrealized or untapped interest in science.  So rather than immediately compartmentalizing science into the standard courses – biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, earth science, environmental science – offer a survey course or two for freshmen.  This would serve several purposes: filling in the gaps from high school, showing how the sciences work in concert, and letting students work off the full menu in testing out what could turn into a major concentration.  Admittedly, armchair curriculum construction is quite easy in contrast to the real deal.

I always come away from these research project demonstrations with a renewed respect for the academic rigor involved and impressed by the enthusiasm on the part of students, professors, and administrators who participate and contribute.  Nearly every student was able to articulate the principles and confidently present their work.  A few are nervous about the presentation part, but no one acts as if their lifeblood had been drained from them.  For most, to cadge a line from Churchill, this fine accomplishment is merely the end of the beginning.  Clearly more research and revelation to come.

It was really refreshing to see young women of intelligence and energy making positive connections with the sciences.  This is not a social experiment, but a natural way of collegiate progression.  There is nothing salient about it.  SU cultivates science interest through a one-day STEM conference for grade 7 girls from the region, an idea copied from PSU York.

Lately, highly-placed critics have been caustically awarding the state universities an “F” for their struggles with finances and enrollment.  Since we are all as taxpayers owners of these public universities, it is immensely reassuring to look inside classrooms and find “A+” worthy work taking place, providing students with the knowledge and tools to compete for high-demand, high-reward jobs.  That spells a needed boost for Pennsylvania progress.

David A. Atkinson is a Research Associate with The Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.