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February 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 5

The Rural Girls in Science Program

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The Rural Girls in Science Program - thumbnail
Twelve years ago, the Rural Girls in Science Program at the University of Washington set out to foster an interest in science among high school girls in rural areas. Our goal was to inspire girls' commitment to science and to heighten their awareness of its usefulness in their communities. With different sources of funding and varying emphases, the program is still in progress, recently expanding to include boys from rural areas.
The National Science Foundation funded one phase of the program, which targeted populations typically underrepresented in the sciences, especially girls in rural schools serving American Indian, Latina, and white students of Washington State. All but one of the participating schools served fewer than 400 students, and approximately one-third of the schools included more than grades 9–12. We asked the schools' science teachers to distribute applications in English and Spanish to girls who had demonstrated academic potential but were not A students and who appeared to need a nudge to get going. As we reviewed student essays and the teachers' recommendations, we looked for girls in the “invisible middle” who had not had the opportunity to attend a science camp or build a science portfolio.
Seventy-three girls in 16 schools participated in the program, which included a two-week residential summer science camp at the University of Washington for teams of girls and their science teachers, high school counselors, and principals; a yearlong, school-based, community-focused, collaborative research project; and a statewide capstone event with speakers, student poster presentations, and workshops (Ginorio, Huston, Frevert, & Bierman, 2002). The girls worked on their cocurricular projects with teachers after school; some teachers used the training they received in the program to incorporate elements of the long-term project in their regular classes as well. Graduate students recruited from various science departments at the University of Washington served as mentors, attending activities with the high school girls, visiting the girls' communities, and guiding them in the design and analysis of their projects.
Through six years of follow-up study on the National Science Foundation-funded phase of the program, we found that the yearlong research project on community issues provided the most powerful impetus for girls to continue studying science beyond high school. The summer residential program was successful in helping students to imagine themselves attending college, but the long-term research project enabled students to imagine themselves as capable of doing science (Ginorio, Blazak, & Marshall, in preparation; Marvel, 1998). As a participant told us in a phone interview,Instead of sitting passively in class listening to somebody telling us how things are, we actually got to do science and experience the scientific process for ourselves.
Scientific work often begins with curiosity about a phenomenon or an interesting problem, not with interest in a particular branch of science. The long-term research project involved girls in identifying issues within their communities that interested them. Placing the source of science questions squarely in the students' communities demonstrated the relevance of science to their lives. The students then formulated research questions that required scientific information traditionally presented in the curriculum as biology, chemistry, and physics. The long-term research project enabled students to see science and their own communities in a new light, experience the scientific process firsthand, and develop images of themselves as future scientists.

Key Components of the Research Projects

Because students developed their projects in the context of their local communities, each school's project was different (Rural Girls in Science Program, 1997). Across all projects, however, five key components of the research promoted success: The research connected directly to the girls' interests and understanding of their communities; it engaged them in the entire scientific process; it tapped expert resources; it involved noncompetitive collaboration; and it received the support of teachers, administrators, community members, and families (Ginorio et al., 2002).

Connection to Students' Interests and Communities

Teams of students from each school began their projects by answering the following questions related to their communities:What is the geography of your community? What does your community value? How do you know that? What is unique about the community's history? Who and what group is considered a decision maker? (Fournier, 1997, pp. 2–3)
Answers to these questions helped the students articulate the context for developing a research question.
At Toppenish High School in south-central Washington, for example, the girls discussed how the Yakima River had broken through sandbag barriers in 1996 and flooded Toppenish homes and businesses. After discussing the impact of the floodwaters on the town and the fear and uncertainty that this community emergency had caused, the girls formulated their long-term research questions: What are the effects of flooding? Will the Yakima River flood the same areas every time, or will it follow a different course?
On Washington State's Pacific coast, high school girls at the Neah Bay K-12 School discussed the controversy surrounding the Makah Nation's plan to resume its ritual harvesting of a gray whale. They formulated their question: What are the historical, cultural, social, and biological factors involved in the Makah treaty right to harvest whales? Students examined the available gray whale migration counts, but their main focus was on conducting research of oral histories and surveys of community members, business owners, fishermen, and tourists and to examine the various arguments for and against the Makah's right to resume this traditional practice. As science educators, we expanded our own definitions of what constitutes scientific research as we opened our thinking to student-driven questions. As one participant pointed out,They didn't tell us which project we were supposed to do, so we picked one that we felt was most important to do for our own community.

Involvement in the Process

The Rural Girls in Science Program presented a comprehensive model of the entire scientific process (Fournier, 1997). For the two-week summer camp, the mentors developed a flow chart and led participants step-by-step through a short-term version of what the long-term research would look like: defining the question, locating resources and gathering information, forming hypotheses, planning research methods, collecting data, organizing and analyzing data, interpreting data, drawing conclusions, and communicating the results. Students were involved in every aspect of the process, from defining the question to presenting the final results. In follow-up interviews, former participants told us how unfamiliar the hands-on process had been at first and how the presentation of the comprehensive model had made science doable.
The program's model pays special attention to the initial phases of the process, especially narrowing topic choices and gathering basic information about areas of interest. Investing time in these crucial processes helps ensure that students formulate a workable hypothesis, thus avoiding the frustration of having to start over because of a poorly designed one.
The official culmination of the long-term research project involved presenting the results in a public forum, such as Inchelium K-12 School students' presentation to the school board detailing what they had accomplished at local recycling centers and processing plants.

Many Sources of Expertise

To conduct community-based research, students reached out to multiple experts—not only to their teachers and University of Washington mentors but also to resources in their own communities. In Toppenish, for example, town officials provided students with a large map of the Yakima Valley that showed the course of the river before the flood of 1996. The small size of their communities meant that girls often had a personal connection to local experts. When the students approached the local fishery or the local dam, for example, the responses often came from a relative or a friend.
By seeking out multiple sources of information, the girls also learned the importance of acknowledging multiple perspectives as they defined each issue. They came to recognize that information gathered from only one source or one side of an issue yields only partial knowledge.
Students also used the Internet, but Internet research can often result in finding “solutions” that are not appropriate for local communities. By contacting local resources, the girls gained communication skills, identity in the community, and an appreciation for the willingness of others to help. At Glenwood High School, for example, students were pleased with the local response:We needed to know how to grow tree saplings, so we called the local logging company. The people there were really helpful and gave us a lot of information and support. They also donated pine seeds and soil.

Noncompetitive Collaboration

In contrast to many science classrooms, the long-term research project emphasized collaborative rather than individual problem-solving skills. This qualitative change had a significant impact on the behavior of the girls in our program. As one participant, an English language learner, noted, “We used to hide in class; now we're involved.”
The sheer scope of the projects required a range of skills in research design, communication, problem solving, critical evaluation, and analysis, and offered each girl opportunities to be a vital contributor. In addition, the group nature of the project supported the girls' practice with new skills. A former participant at Lake Crescent Jr./Sr. High School told us,Each of us tried to participate in every step—taking pictures, videotaping, and interviewing hunters, conservationists, and residents about deer behavior.
This kind of work led to a sense of ownership and pride. As another participant noted, “That final project is something I always brag about.”

Wide-Ranging Support

Teams of teachers and counselors adapted each project to the different needs of their classrooms and students. Teachers and administrators played crucial roles in validating students' efforts and facilitating community reception of student projects. Support from each layer of the community and school district was important to the success of the projects.

Replicating the Research Project

The small size of many rural schools is particularly conducive to implementing community-based research projects. Having the same subset of students in different courses with the same teacher in each discipline, for example, can facilitate interdisciplinary integration. Teachers need time to collaborate on planning and implementing the program while counselors facilitate access to community resources.
Students benefit from engaging in a dry run, such as a short two-week research project that offers students hands-on practice and gives the teacher opportunities to model the thinking and decision making required for scientific investigations. (See, for example, the short-term Wild Iris project at http://depts.washington.edu/rural/RURAL/fieldnotes/iris.html.)
The mission of many schools ties directly to the goals of these long-term research projects. The projects often meet service-learning mandates and work naturally across disciplines, helping students achieve academic benchmarks for communication skills, civics, geography, mathematics, and science. In Washington State, the skills learned in this kind of research prepare students for the culminating project that the state will require for high school graduation in 2007.

Success of the Program

Although each team's long-term research project officially ended with its public presentation, the benefits did not stop there. Some of the participants described their experiences in New Moon, a magazine for girls (Sanchez, Ternan, Maneilia, Henton, & Solis, 1998; Tevuk, 1998). In our follow-up studies, teachers reported increased confidence and discussion among both participants and their peers about attending college. One participant wrote,If it were not for the program, I would be working at McDonald's and maybe not even attending school. Now I'm going to be the first member of my family to graduate from high school, and I'm going to college.
The North Beach High School project received a Presidential Award for environmental conservation. The Neah Bay group provided visual materials and information for an international conference on whaling in Geneva. Toppenish displayed in the town library the results of the local project on river flooding. Many local papers covered the progress and the final results of these projects.
The civic-minded projects have left tangible legacies in the communities in which they were conducted, such as a recycling program in Inchelium and improved access to a lake on the school grounds in North Beach for bioaquatic science experiments. In schools, teachers have developed new science classes and improved their science curriculums.
In both one-year postparticipation and five-year postgraduation studies, students have reported lasting benefits. In an evaluation based on the first three cohorts of participants, 84 percent of the girls went to college, and 50 percent of those declared science or a science-related subject as their major. This rate of majoring in science is substantially higher than the national average of 10 percent of female college-bound high school seniors who express an intention to pursue a college major in the natural sciences (Ginorio, Blazak, & Marshall, in preparation; Ginorio et al., 2002).
Two characteristics of our population make these numbers significant. First, our recruitment of students did not target students who had already shown an outstanding interest in science but instead an often-overlooked group that Tobias (1990) called “the second tier” and that counselors in our participating schools called the “invisible middle.” Second, almost two-thirds of participants were American Indian or Latina girls, who are less likely than white girls to pursue science.
The long-term research project shows that many scientific issues can spark girls' interest in science and that teachers, counselors, and principals can facilitate an exploration of local issues that simultaneously builds skills, scientific knowledge, and a sense of community among their students.
References

Fournier, J. (with Breuner, C., Garcia, L., Henderson, S., & Kelsey, K.). (1997). A model for applying the scientific method in your community. Report published by the Northwest Center for Research on Women's Rural Girls in Science Program at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

Ginorio, A. B., Blazak, S. B., & Marshall, T. (in preparation). Doing science, learning science: Formative experiences of rural girls.

Ginorio, A. B., Huston, M., Frevert, K., & Bierman, J. (2002). Rural girls in science: From pipelines to affirming education. Journal of Ethnic Minorities in Science and Engineering, 8, 305–325.

Marvel, R. (1998). Migrant Education News, 9.

Rural Girls in Science Program. (1997). [Online]. Available: http://depts.washington.edu/rural/RURAL/design/scimethod.html

Sanchez, A., Ternan, K., Maneilla, V., Henton, A., & Solis, C. (1998). Community science. New Moon, 5(3), 21–23.

Tevuk, D. (1998). Two stories of science. New Moon, 5(3), 24.

Tobias, S. (1990). They're not dumb, they're different: Stalking the second tier. Tucson, AZ: Research Corporation.



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