Achieving Gender Equality in the Science Classroom

Supporting All Students

Do innate differences exist between the abilities of boys and girls in science?

I was asked this question recently by Lynn Shearer on a television broadcast that included astronaut Sally Ride and a female science student from Harvard. Shearer's questions were posed in response to a January Boston Globe article that reported that Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers allegedly said that only a small number of women held high-level positions in science and engineering. Summers then elaborated on three possible contributing factors: the decision of women who have children to forego working 80-hour weeks; the fact that boys have outperformed girls on math and science tests in the late high school years; and the fact, according to Summers, that women do not have the same innate abilities as men.

Having been a high school teacher for almost 30 years, I have conducted my own research about the achievement of boys and girls in my classes. I've found that the trend has been for girls to take more and higher-level science classes—particularly AP courses—than their male counterparts. But I also think that student achievement in science depends upon the individual student, not on his or her gender.

I believe the real issue is not the innate abilities of boys and girls. Instead we should ask ourselves whether real gender equity exists in our science classrooms.

In the NSTA position statement "Gender Equity in Science Education," science educators are asked to "select only those curriculum materials that present culturally diverse male and female role models working in all disciplines and at all levels of science." Long gone are the characterizations of scientists and engineers as white men with glasses and white lab coats. As educators, it is our responsibility to "provide all students with the most recent information about the kinds of opportunities available in the sciences, as well as the preparation necessary to attain such careers." While these declarations and others contained in the position statement address gender equity in preK-12 classrooms, NSTA also recognizes the importance of ensuring gender equity in higher education. (To access the position statement, visit the NSTA Web site.)

NSTA Position Statement

As teachers, our job is to ensure that all boys and girls—regardless of age, cultural or ethnic background, or disabilities—have the support they need to be successful science students who feel respected and challenged in their science courses. Girls are just as intelligent as boys, so both must have an equal opportunity to learn.

So what does it mean to have a classroom in which students feel respected and challenged? A classroom environment that models respect is one in which both teachers and students can feel accepted and all students are invited to learn. All students are both encouraged and expected to discuss their ideas. Respect is obvious when it is permissible for students to risk presenting their hypotheses and thinking. If student learning is the goal, then no factor is as important to student achievement as having a good teacher who maintains a safe and nurturing classroom environment.

Challenging students means motivating them to think: creating a science classroom that invites questioning and dialogue that promotes thinking and discussion. To be challenged, students need to be able to apply their science ideas to a new context. They should be encouraged to use their current knowledge to predict outcomes and solve problems. And when students are discussing their science ideas, they need to use the language of science. Then all students, both girls and boys, must be able to reflect upon their thinking so they can clearly understand what they know, as well as what they don't know.

Learning results when students are respected and challenged. In this process, teachers matter. Teachers must believe that all students can learn.

As science educators, believing that all students can learn equally is more than just words. Classroom climate and teaching strategies must provide every student an equitable opportunity.

Do innate differences exist between boys and girls in their ability to do science? No. But experience tells us that teachers need to articulate clear messages to all students that they can learn. Unless teachers create equitable learning environments, students will be excluded from learning science. Ultimately those students would lose the opportunity to pursue science and engineering careers.

So, ask yourself: Do you really believe that all students can learn? Well, do you? Now that's what is really important. Our students are counting on us!

Anne Tweed taught AP Biology and AP Environmental Science in Colorado for 28 years. She retired recently in order to fulfill her duties as the National Science Teachers Association President, 2004-2005. She has published many articles, given more than 100 presentations and workshops, and is co-author of a high school environmental science textbook, Environmental Science, 3rd Edition, Prentice Hall, 2003. Tweed also works as a senior science consultant for McREL, Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, in Aurora, Colorado.

Reprinted with permission from the National Science Teachers Association. Originally published February 18, 2005.
NSTA Web Site: Achieving Gender Equality in the Science Classroom

Authored by

Anne Tweed
National Science Teachers Association
Arlington, Virginia