Seeing Sines 

If only girls would watch their figures.

You know, the ones for addition, subtraction, advanced trig, and calculus.

Last month, Harvard University president Lawrence Summers got a pi in the face after he suggested that the upper echelons of science and engineering were dominated by males because of inherent biological differences between the sexes. Since then, critics have pointed to explicit and implicit sexism to explain the permutation.

Dr. Shirley Key teaches science to students studying education at the University of Memphis. When she was in college, some professors told her to get out of science, because it was a man's field. In her chemistry and anatomy classes, the other students were mostly male.

"They would ask me, 'What are you going to do with this?' or 'Did you think this was the class for nurses?'" she recalls.

Key, a Manassas High School graduate, now studies how cultural inclusion helps minority students learn. While in Texas, she had a group of eighth-graders who were considered to be the worst students in the school.

"I tried to relate everything they were doing to something they knew," she says. On one practice test, a group of her students came upon a question that dealt with MatchBox cars. "They had never heard of MatchBox cars," she says. "They couldn't get past that word. I told them to think of model cars or skateboards."

She says a similar thing can happen with women and science. Those same MatchBox cars, for instance, might drive female students to a state of confusion, the common hypothesis being that a lack of understanding leads to a lack of interest.

Many of Key's budding elementary-school teachers -- a field dominated by women -- begin each semester saying they don't like science.

Whatever the cause, women are still underrepresented in science fields. Studies have shown that by sixth grade, girls have only a fraction of their previous interest in science. To help get them over the middle-school arc, the University of Memphis' Herff School of Engineering offered a one-week program called GEE (Girls Experiencing Engineering) last summer. They built bridges and did experiments with the hope that they would come away from the experience thinking science wasn't so square.

In fall 2001, the Herff School had 592 full-time students and 265 part-time students in its bachelor of science programs. Only 170 women were enrolled, making the student body just less than 20 percent female.

This disparity seems especially important in Memphis, a city hoping to go big in "bio" in the next decade. Just last month, demolition began on Union Avenue to make space for the UT/Baptist Research Park. The facility will include an incubator to develop new business and is expected -- at least according to the Memphis Bioworks Foundation's Web site -- to "help create thousands of higher-paying jobs."

Not to get off on a tangent, but the lowest common denominator is that the city has to prepare and encourage its students -- both boys and girls -- to obtain these jobs. In a community where 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, biotech could be a prime opportunity.

Unfortunately, our math skills aren't great at any level. If the city can "discover" an unspent $16 million in the parks budget, it's obvious a little more attention to numbers wouldn't hurt.

According to the 2004 state report card for Memphis City Schools, 30 percent of all students in kindergarten through eighth grade were below proficiency level in math. That number was better than the year before (when 39 percent were below proficient) but still earned the district a D grade. The statewide average was a B.

Currently, about one in nine jobs in Memphis is tech-related. As that ratio changes, our educational system will have change with it. The world doesn't grade on the curve.

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