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October 29, 2014 - Image 12

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The Michigan Daily, 2014-10-29

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Wednesday b 2 TheStatement SB

, 1othing about the sciences is easy. None
of the professors looks like Doc Brown.
Not many more resemble Albert Ein-
stein, or for that matter any other frizzy-haired
stereotype in popular media. And not much
about scientific work comes "naturally" - any
assertion that students must be born with a nat-
ural inclination toward it is untrue. Science is a
painfulslog, mired in often-unrelenting calcula-
tion, stuck in a perpetual cycle of trial and error,
so that its very nature - a search for an exact,
quantifiable truth - demands effort. Science, in
the purest sense of the word, is a meritocracy.
Then why is it that inthe vast majority of sci-
ence and technology courses offered at the Uni-
versity, most students are male? It's a question
thrown around a lot in department offices not
just in Ann Arbor, but across the nation, where
even though women have earned nearlyl0 mil-
lion more college degrees than men in the past
30 years, they continue to lagbehind in STEM-
related (Science, Technology, Engineering and
Mathematics) fields. It's also a question which
has larger implications about the state of femi-
nism on university campuses in the age of social
media and transparency. One explanation cites
STEM's stagnant reputation.
"Unfortunately, science has become one of
those things where the larger population seems
to think that you have to be born to succeed,"
said Tim McKay, the director of the LSA Hon-
ors Program and former associate chair of the
University's physics department. "That there's
some magical quality within the people pursu-
ing itletting them do well."
According to research performed by the
National Science Foundation, of the total num-
ber of undergraduates working toward a bach-
elor's degree in physics in the United States,
less than 20 percent are women. That statistic,
whichshowedstrongsigns of growth in the late
1990s and early 2000s, has consistently fallen
over the last decade. From 1990 to 2002, the
percentage of women awarded bachelor degrees
went from 17.4 percent to 22.9 in physics. In the
twelve years after, the number has tapered off
and fallen to 19.7. The result is acutely mirrored
in the University's own physics department,
where growth has stalled, the number of female
physics graduates fluctuating toward the low
teens despite the department usually awarding
around So degrees in total.
Cinda-Sue Davis, director of Women in Sci-
ence and Engineering (WISE) and a former bio-

chemistry research scientist at the University,
believes that changes have to be made in the
way schools introduce engineeringto prospec-
tive students.
"Researchers who study how individuals
make career choices find that individuals gen-
erally ask themselves two questions: 'Can I do
it? That is, am I capable of doing the work?'"
she said. "High school girls in this country are
more prepared than ever before to enter STEM
careers. More girls in this country take the AP
calculus exam than boys. This has not always
been true but is now."
"The second question is, 'do I want to do it?'
This is more complicated as issues of gender,
race, socioeconomic class, first gen. college sta-
tus and many other factors are involved," Davis
continued. "We don't do a very good job at illus-
trating the excitement and rewards of careers in
STEM. And we don't show students how these
careers help people which is often important to
girls and women."
Part of the problem, McKay states, is the
department's struggle to attract any students
willing to commit to a career in physics. As
listed by the American Physical Society, when
examining 1,000 University of Michigan stu-
dents, fewer than10 are physics majors.Ofthose
10, maybe two are women, and the statistics are
even more lackluster when considering the per-
centage of underrepresented minorities study-
ing in the department. Nationally, 8.6 percent
of the people committing to physics degrees are
minorities while at Michigan, it's half that num-
According to reports by the registrar, even
though the University has seen an average of 78
Native American undergraduates between 2010
and 2014 (they make up 0.21 percent of the stu-
dent body),not asingle one has received a bache-
lor's, master's, or Ph.D. in physics. The numbers
are scarier when considering Black students.
An average of 1777 (approximately five percent
of the student body) were enrolled in the Uni-
versity between 2010 and 2012, but in that time,
only two left with a bachelor's in physics.
A proposed solution asks institutions of high-
er learning to consider mandating certain intro-
ductory science courses, so more students have
a chance to at least experience what the syllabus
may have to offer before embarking on a differ-
ent path.
"I really don't think that would be the best
answer," McKay said. "Making this change

would be predicated on the idea that the prob-
lem is they're not taking that class, and if we
could justget them to take that class, then every-
thing would be fine."
"I think the choice people make in choos-
ing the things they do depends more on what
they're attracted to, not what they are driven
away from," he continued.
One fact worth keeping in mind, though, is
that the physics department is not representa-
tive of all STEM fields. When considering the
social sciences or biology, the percentage of
minorities and women are higher, but still not
equivalent to white male representation.
Getting anearlier start
The physics department currently has a slew
of outreach programs dedicated to sparking that
attraction, many created and run by the Society
of Physics Students and the Society of Women in
Physics (SWIP). Though the larger effort entails
getting all individuals to express an interest in
the subject - not specifically women or under-
represented minorities - McKay still believes
the support systems provided by organizations
like SWIP are integral to confronting the larger
problem: marginalization.
"We need it to be completely clear to women
that it's a welcoming field," McKay said. "And
part of this is ensuring they have a community
of individuals like them that they can draw on
and rely on."
In their collective push, the physics depart-
ment participates in the yearly Conference
for Undergraduate Women in Physics, where
women from different institutions can find a
network of young scientists with similar experi-
The disparity in numbers is certainly not lim-
ited to physics, but multiple accounts have clari-
fied why one of the reasons it persists in related
fields is a lack of focus in cultivating interest at
a younger age. In an article for The New York
Times article headlined "Why Are There Still
So Few Women in Science," Creative Writing
Prof. Eileen Pollack describes her own struggles
as one of the first two women ever to graduate
with a physics degree from Yale in1978.
"I attended a rural public school whose few
accelerated courses in physics and calculus I
wasn't allowed to take because, as my principal
put it, 'girls never go on in science and math,"'
she writes. "When I arrived at Yale, I was woe-

fully unprepared. The boys in my introductory STEM at the'U'
physics class, who had taken far more rigorous
math and science classes in high school, yawned Grappling with this issue presents a multi-
as our professor sped through the material, layered problem. Though the Obama adminis-
while I grew panicked at how little I under- tration has called for graduating an additional
stood." 100,000 STEM-trained teachers over the next
What's telling about Pollack's case is she decade, the chances of it coming to fruition
knew she wanted to pursue science as a career are slim, simply because little is being done by
before ever entering college, so despite the pres- universities to meet it. Most education depart-
sures confronting her in high school, she taught ments, including Michigan's School of Edu-
herself calculus from a book, independently cation, provide little to no incentive for their
studying advanced topics her classmates did students to collect science credits before gradu-
not have exposure to. At those initial stages, the ation, creating a smaller selection of educators
most significant blowback Pollack faced came;r qualified to teach the subjects, and thereby less
in the form of teachers, educators who failed able to understand how to approach someone
to correctly cultivate her passion: because they like Pollack.
didn'tknowhow Few students pursue physics or mathematics
According to Mel Hochster, chair of the Uni- ~ teaching majors within the School of Education.
versity's mathematicsdepartment, a crucial step Both demand three semesters of calculus and
in addressingthe overarching issue requires the even more class hours taking advanced STEM-
ability to identify and inspire more individuals:} centric courses, but the irony is in realizing that
like Pollack at an early age, so that their interests i the state of Michigan only requires student to
can be fostered.>r have completed a teaching minor and related
"Quite plainly, we have to invest in making. certification test in their field of specialization
sure K-12 teachers aren't unconsciously demoti- when applying for teaching certification. This
vating these young women," he said. "And that - means that a graduate with 20 credit hours in
push has to be united, directed at those who are.t STEM (2.0 GPA) is given as much of a right to
most underrepresented: women and minori- teach math as another graduate with 38.
ties." The College of Engineering, 24 percent of
In order to be effective, this requires funding whose incoming undergraduate class consists of
-something the University provides in the case women, has several plans in place to address the
of organizations like SWIP, but has no official larger issue, but again, most are directed at the
programs established to address school teach- pre-college student population, not the teachers
ers. leading the classroom. Like the physics depart-
A study - funded by the National Center for ment, the College funds student organizations
Education Statistics - implies part of the expla- J such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE)
nation may be linked to how most physics and I that put on multiple events intended to inspire
engineering teachers at the elementary to high female engineers. What's unique about the
schoollevelusually don't have college degrees in Engineering programs, though, is a concerted
the areas they teach. While STEM degree hold- effort to target schools with underprivileged
ers earnsignificantly more in the private sector, studentbodies.
there are still those who turn to teaching. In "I think the ultimate aim is to show young
the case of physics teachers, one can expect less r; students how directly engineering can impact
than half to have graduated with coursework i their surroundings," said David Munson, dean
related to the subjects they tackle in class. of the College of Engineering. "I think when we
The numbers dwindle the further back you get that message out- that we're not chained to
go, meaning a middle school teacher responsible a desk or in front of a computer - it has to be
with handling a math curriculum is less likely attractive to everyone, including women and
to have a degree in the subject than someone v underrepresented minorities."
teaching it in high school. This is particularly Yet, an often-cited reason for the slow climb
problematic when considering the numerous # isa sharp disparity in the number of female fac-
reports by education researchers that declare ulty members employed by these departments,
pre-high-school education tobe integral in set- not a lack of drive to reach prospective students.
ting students on a clear path to graduation. See STEM, Page 8B



O T 1,348; E GE

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