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Gender-segregated science classrooms.

Kristina Eloisa Pereyra kristina at uclink.berkeley.edu
Thu Jun 1 14:52:31 EST 1995

The maOthematics Department at the University of Minnesota has
offered a year-long advanced math course for high ability high
school students for a number of years.  Students enroll in the
course based on scores on a University test.  They noted with
concern that few girls even took the test, and there was a very
low (significantly lower than the boys) retention rate for girls.

The "experiment" was to offer two sections of this course.
One section was all male, one section was 50% male, 50% female.
Both sections were supposed to be taught exactly the same.

Over time, the number of girls taking the test increased, and
the retention rate of the girls also increased.  Eventually
they were able to go back to one section, approximately half
each gender.

[end of quoted material]

I am an alumna of the UMTYMP program (University of Minnesota Talented Youth
Mathematics Program) and spent every Thursday afternoon of my college years
serving as a teaching assistant for the program.

The material above is accurate but it's not everything we did to retain our
female students.  When I went through the program, there were no special
efforts made to keep girls from dropping out.  My female classmates vanished
at a surprising rate.

The 50-50 classrooms were instituted during my T.A. years, and worked wonders
for retention and getting the girls to participate. 

The teachers and T.A.s were shuffled so that each classroom had a male and
female instructor.  We had all-girls pizza parties supervised by the female
staff and instructors.  The girls made friends with each other and helped
each other in classwork.  The program director called it "Dissipating the
Nerd Factor" - after all, here are a bunch of female math students having
a party.  Who feels like a nerd in this kind of environment?

One thing from my T.A. years in UMPTYMP comes to mind whenever the "Are girls
really discouraged?" question comes up.  Her name was Maria, and she was the
brightest student in the class, male or female.  She would catch onto the
concept halfway through the first sentence of the explanation.  She was a
systematic thinker, breaking problems into steps as naturally as breathing.
She did wonderfully on her homework and tests, as if it was just a formality
to her learning process.  She asked incisive questions in class which often
leaped ahead of the instructor's lecture.

She prefaced every one of her questions with "Um, this might be stupid, but..."
or a similar qualifier.

I don't know what taught her to do this, or what made her so insecure about her
own thinking.  Whatever it was, it happened before she was eleven years old.
I even brought it to her attention once, told her how well she was doing and
that she had no reason to mistrust her intelligence.  Predictably, she didn't
believe it was possible for her to be the best student in this kind of class.

Whereever Maria is now, I hope she learned to believe in herself and that
she's a scientist.  It would be the crime of the century to lose this one.


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