Girls for Planet Earth work in butterfly garden

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–It is hard to imagine the group of three teens digging up a corner of Rufus King Park in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens is in danger. Yes, they live in a tough neighborhood, attend what some consider one of the most dangerous schools in New York City and have to cross this poorly lit, wooded park twice a day on their walk to and from school.

But on this clear autumn weekend, the teens–all female–are joking easily, talking aboutschool and dancing and boys, and digging in the still-warm earth to plant Russian sage and butterfly bushes, species they hope will attract butterflies to the park come spring. Occasionally they pause to worry out a difficult root or pry up a large stone.

The sun spills down through the high crowns of trees–trees that they know well, having counted and catalogued and studied each one. No one looks concerned, except when they consider the prospects for their plants to survive the winter.

The danger that Saran Townsend, 15, Rebecca Lamour, 16, and Mignat John, 15, face is instead a subtler one and it comes in an unexpected place: the science classroom.

Currently a disproportionate number of girls who express an interest in the sciences early in their schooling abandon that goal by the time they reach high school. In response, a growing number of programs are available that encourage female students to continue studying science and technical subjects in high school and beyond.

Girls for Planet Earth

A case in point is Girls for Planet Earth, the program to which the teens belong. It attempts to address the disparity by engaging female teens in science activities related to the environment. The year-old program is run by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and funded by the Gender Equity Program of the National Science Foundation, based in Arlington, Va. Small groups of high school students around the country who are accepted into the program from affiliated organizations, such as the Girl Scouts of America, conduct science-oriented service learning projects that, in addition to being scientifically rigorous, must also benefit the communities in which they live. Townsend, Lamour and John joined Girls for Planet Earth through the 21st Century Community of Learners, an after-school program at Hillcrest High School run by the Forest Hills Community House in Jamaica, Queens.

Currently 12 Girls for Planet Earth groups–each with three to four members–are working around the country on projects that range from increasing the biodiversity of an urban park to constructing owl houses out of recycled materials.

This past summer the entire group of more than 40 teens came to the Bronx Zoo, the headquarters of the Wildlife Conservation Society, to learn about ecology and career opportunities in science from women who are recognized experts in their field.

Moral Support also Important

Jeanine Silversmith, the program’s coordinator, believes this opportunity gives female teens a significant career-planning boost, particularly as it comes in a package that includes a fair bit of moral support for the students as they navigate a sometimes difficult time in their life.

“Our goal is to keep girls interested in science as they make decisions about what to do after high school and in their careers,” says Silversmith. “Even if they find it exciting or easy doesn’t mean they’re not at risk.”

Many experts agree the gender difference in science arises in part because female students respond more readily to a collaborative learning environment, while male students work well under conditions that favor individual achievement that predominate in schools. A lack of female role models, peer support, and positive media messages also conspire to dampen female students’ motivation to pursue science as they move through the educational system.

Although the gender gap in science fields has narrowed somewhat over the past three decades, the reasons behind it may be too entrenched to close it entirely unless schools change their teaching approach, experts say.

“The principles on which schools are based conflict with collaborative learning,” states Angela Calabrese Barton, an associate professor at Teacher’s College in New York City who has studied gender differences in science education. “We have to find new ways to assess student achievement.”

Studies indicate that girls score as well as boys in science and math from primary school through middle school. But in high school, their interest in the subjects appears to decline sharply as something of a syndrome develops, where girls who find the science and math classroom environments more daunting begin drifting away, leaving those girls still in these classrooms with fewer female friends to share their interest.

Social Shifts at Critical Juncture

As girls move away from math and science, they shift the social center of their peer group away as well. Middle school “is the beginning of tracking based on literacy and math ability,” says Barton. “Peer groups and social support networks are important to girls of this age. It’s easy for girls not to move into a science track because their friends are not.”

By college, the gap between the sexes is substantial. The American Association of University Women in Washington, D.C., reports that women receive only 28 percent of the computer science bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States and just 18 percent of the engineering degrees. In physics, women account for only 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees and 12 percent of the doctorates.

In Rufus King Park, however, the Queens trio is on relatively safe ground. As a result of their work, they know more about the 11-acre rectangle of open space than just about anyone else in New York City–and they are in the process of making it their stepping stone toward college majors or careers in science.

Their project involves studying and augmenting the park’s biodiversity and, at the same time, raising public awareness of the need to keep the neighborhood’s largest open area clean.

Switching from Trees to Butterflies

Initially they planned to augment the park’s plant biodiversity. But when they surveyed the park they got a bit of a surprise. They found nearly 30 species of trees–a legacy of Rufus King, the park’s namesake, a framer of the Constitution and a noted 18th century plant biologist.

“One of our goals was to increase biodiversity,” says Mignat John, “but we found we already had a lot of biodiversity.” So the girls decided to plant a butterfly garden and increase the park’s diversity of insect species. Now they are busy digging up weedy, invasive plants–which crowd out more desirable native plants–and putting in flowering shrubs and bulbs ahead of the first frost.

All three of the girls admit they find science interesting, if not easy.

Rebecca Lamour says she is having some difficulty staying motivated this year, because the topics seem to be taught in a disjointed, unconnected way. Brushing the dirt from her hands she stops to consider what she has learned in the relatively new school year and how interested she will remain in a field and a system where the odds are somewhat stacked against her.

“Hopefully when we get to ecology it will bring everything together,” she says and then turns back to her work.

Ken Kostel is a free-lance writer in New York specializing in science and the environment. He enjoyed science classes in high school and apologizes to former classmates if he dominated discussion.

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