Every Friday, just when most school staff and students are heading home for the weekend, about 130 girls gather at the King Open School for one of their favorite activities of the week. Friday is Science Club for Girls day, when the elementary school girls build bridges, dissect cow hearts, or produce chemical reactions. Working in teams, the K-7 girls try out new skills, learn from older students, and meet professional scientists. Created by parents ten years ago and now staffed with six part-time professionals, the clubs have attracted foundation support and spawned a few sister programs in the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Public School system.
EDC, which has provided technical assistance and support for the clubs, has just published Science Clubs for Girls: A Guide to Starting Your Own. “This is a successful volunteer project that involved parents and teachers,” says Kimberly Sansoucy of EDC. “We wanted to capture the how to, given the continued climate of girls not entering mathematics, science, and engineering fields in the same numbers as boys. ”
The science clubs consist of small teams of 8-12 girls in grades K-7. They are led by two female scientists/mentors and one or two junior assistants (older high school girls). “As they problem-solve, with the guidance of their scientists/mentors, the girls open new avenues of possibility for themselves and build the confidence they need to explore these possibilities,” according to Mary Memmott, Program Director at King Open School.
The science clubs emerged as a response to the landmark 1992 report from the American Association of University Women, How Schools Shortchange Girls. That report highlighted the drop in girls’ confidence in their performance in math and science as they approach adolescence. Subsequent reports have revealed disparities and inequities between men and women in science and math performance, career options, and career choices. In recent years, the clubs received key funding from the Caroline and Sigmund Schott Foundation as part of its Gender Healthy Schools initiatives.
“We hope that getting girls excited about science and more assertive will have an impact,” says Memmott. As the girls get more excited about the clubs, so do the teachers, and it just builds on itself. ”
The clubs’ activities are not purely academic, but they are designed and scheduled to complement students’ ongoing science instruction, said Memmott. The clubs use both homegrown curriculum materials and purchase pre-assembled science kits from museums and science centers. In one activity, the girls play the role of scientists on a research and development team of a chemical company. They are challenged to produce specific gases in the most simple and inexpensive way. When possible, says Memmott, activities like that are enhanced by the involvement of a chemical engineer who could help with the experiments, build understanding of the science principle, and help girls apply them.
The clubs have not been formally evaluated, but Memmott continually sees evidence that it is working. For example, a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recruited a group of King school girls to join an international rocket building contest. “They would never have heard of it without our program,” says Memmott. “For these individual girls the clubs are having a huge impact.”
The 20-page booklet, available from EDC’s Gender and Diversities Institute, describes the inception of the clubs, how to build and maintain one, and how to sustain them financially over the years. The programs can run using volunteer staff, but ideally they have paid part-time staffers, said Memmott. Securing ongoing funding—a $45,000 budget is typical—is a constant challenge, she adds.
Originally published on April 1, 2003