Bridging the science gender gap

Girls with mothers who aren't confident in their science abilities are less likely to perform well on school science tests nationwide and in Ashland, says Carolyn Johnson, volunteer with the Ashland chapter of Soroptimist International.

That's a statistic the Soroptimist club and ScienceWorks are trying to change. The two nonprofits are co-hosting a Mother-Daughter Science Fair Saturday at the museum to try to encourage females of all ages to study chemistry, biology and engineering.

"When mothers feel a lack of confidence in science and math, then it carries over to their daughters," Johnson says. "Girls are not necessarily given the same opportunities to explore science as boys are."

Thirty mothers and their fourth- or fifth-grade daughters already have signed up for the first-ever event, planned from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. There are more than a dozen people on the waiting list, exceeding organizers' expectations.

Johnson got the idea for the Science Fair after hearing about a similar event in Washington, she says.

"Until fourth or fifth grade, girls and boys are performing equally in science, but then the gender gap starts to widen," she says. "So we want to catch them before that happens and hopefully prevent it from happening."

Girls in the Ashland School District were almost twice as likely to fail the state science test last academic year as boys were, according to test scores released to the school board in January.

Districtwide, 23.3 percent of girls and 12.5 percent of boys didn't meet state standards on the science test in 2009-10. The year before, the percentages were 24 and 17.1, respectively, meaning boys have since shown improvement but girls have stayed about the same.

Soroptimist and ScienceWorks applied for a $500 grant from Oregon Community Foundation's Skyrman Techno Fund, and received the money in December. Soroptimist also contributed $500 toward the Science Fair.

If the gathering proves to be a success, organizers want to make it an annual event, giving other mothers and daughters a chance to learn about science and engineering in a fun environment, says Skoshi Wise, ScienceWorks education director.

"We're trying to catch them when there's still that equity line, in fourth and fifth grade, so we can hopefully reverse those statistics," she says.

Organizers can reapply for the grant annually, Johnson says.

On Saturday, participants will build bridges out of craft sticks and will program robots using LEGO software. Two teachers from Helman Elementary School, which runs a Soroptimist Strong Girls Strong Women program to help girls master science concepts, will lead the workshops.

"The teachers have been trained in these science concepts and now they have that experience they can take back to their classrooms," Johnson says.

Later, ScienceWorks program coordinator Shauna Oster will give a chemistry demonstration.

"I think role models are still an important piece to this," Wise says. "There are starting to be more women in science and that's helping."

For more information on the event, call 541-482-6767 or visit

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