Eyes to the Future Middle School Girls Envisioning Science and Math in High School and Beyond
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Eyes to the Future:
Initial results from an innovative mentoring program
for middle-school girls in math and science

by Brian Drayton and Joni Falk

TERC
2067 Massachusetts Avenue,
Cambridge MA 02140

 
 
A paper presented to the annual meeting of the
American Educational Research Association
March 1999, Montreal

 
 
©TERC 1999
Draft - Not for Quotation.


There is still a wide gap in girls' rates of enrollment and achievement in science courses, in comparison with boys. The gender gap increases as students move towards high-school, increasing from age 9 to age 13 (Kahle and Meese 1994; Canner et al. 1994). In particular, middle school is a decisive period in a student's formation as a learner of math and science. Studies of middle- and high-school females suggest that engagement with mentors can add significantly to improve self-confidence with regard to math science and technology (Nightingale and Wolverton 1993). Telecommunications facilities such as the Internet or the World-Wide Web could help to expand the pool of potential mentor-mentee matches. Many such programs, however, lack important ingredients of a community-based approach, and may serve primarily the students already interested in math, science, and technology (MST), by-passing the lower achieving or less confident students.

This paper describes the design and initial finding of an innovative mentoring program which connects middle-school (MS) girls of all abilities to female mentors working in math and science related fields. The purpose of the project was to provide urban middle-school youth with role models who have pursued math and science in high school and beyond. Unlike many school-to-work initiatives which inspire young adolescents to think about alternative long-term futures, this project also concentrated on the path that lies more immediately ahead of MS students -- high school. The paper provides evidence of the power of a long-term mentorship program to engage students of all levels of academic achievement with the content of math and science, and with issues particular to female students in MST. This project was funded by Arthur D. Little, Inc. and is housed at TERC, Inc. of Cambridge, MA.

Context

The study took place in the fall of 1997, in Somerville, MA, a diverse urban school district near Boston. Fifteen seventh- and eighth-grade girls, five high school mentors, and five adult mentors participated. In addition to Internet communication by means of a website developed for the project, middle-school students met periodically after school with a science teacher and TERC staff to discuss their experiences and to use the computers. High-school and adult mentors participated through Internet access either at school, work, or home.

Middle-school students, selected on a "first come" basis, represented a wide range of academic achievement as well as broad ethnic diversity. The HS students were selected with the help of the HS science coordinator who sought students known to be responsible, engaging, and strong in math, science, and technology (MST). The adult mentors were selected by following students' interests and included a boat builder-engineer, an ecologist, a veterinary technician, a pediatrician, and a geologist.

The project website provided three areas for communication, for each of three constituencies:

  1. Mixed-age forums allowed groups composed of three middle-school students, one high-school student, and one adult mentor to exchange and read messages. There were 5 such teams.
  2. A "high school only" forum provided an electronic space for TERC staff to provide input to the HS girls, and for the HS girls to speak to each other.
  3. A "middle school only" forum provided initial training to the middle-school girls on communication using the website. It also served as a place for TERC staff to communicate with MS students and for MS students to communicate with each other. All groups were aware that messages would be read and archived by TERC staff for research purposes.

We report our finding with respect to the following research questions:

  • What were important themes that emerged from the middle school/high school dialogue?
  • In what ways were high-school students able to offer mentoring to middle-school students?
  • What were important themes that emerged from the middle-school/adult mentor dialogue?
  • What were the ways in which adult mentors were able to mentor high-school students?
  • What were the differences between the way high-school students depicted their experiences to middle-school students, and the way they related their experiences to their peers?
  • Did the Internet present logistical challenges for the middle-school girls?
  • What were the patterns of communication?
  • What kinds of scaffolding were necessary to support the dialogues, both in terms of pre-participation training, and facilitation during the project?

Data Sources

Data used for this study were drawn from several sources. All network conversations between participants were archived as text files. In addition, there were focus groups with the middle-school and the high-school girls, face-to-face and electronic conversations with the participating teacher and mentors, and background questionnaires from the middle-school and high-school girls. Qualitative data were read and coded by two researchers, seeking themes and patterns within and between groups. Themes that emerged were discussed with the participating teacher.

Results and Discussion

Themes that emerged from dialogue between middle-school girls and high-school mentors

Middle-school students communicated for a period of approximately twelve weeks with their high-school mentors. The messages were often complex, containing many topics. It was common for a message to contain personal information, some questions about high school, a funny vignette that occurred at school, as well as a request for help on a science project.

The middle-school girls represented a broad range of academic ability and several were doing poorly in school. In contrast, all the high-school mentors were selected because they had pursued math and science in high school. Further, the high-school girls had different ethnic backgrounds from those of the middle-school girls. Initially, we questioned how these two groups would relate. Our fear was unfounded, as all five groups of middle-school students (three middle-school students were paired with each high-school mentor) related well to their mentors.

In most cases the high-school girls initiated threads of conversation, aside from times when the middle-school girls had developed questions during their meeting with TERC staff. The following themes were most salient in the dialogue between middle-school girls and their high-school mentors.

Providing affective support

The tenor of the conversation between middle-school students and their high-school mentors was very personal and friendly. On each team three middle-school girls communicated with one HS mentor and one adult mentor. Even though the middle-school girls knew that all five people could read each message, they were surprisingly not self-conscious about the content of their messages. Frequently, the middle-school students shared their success, failures, and fears about high school with their mentors. Middle-school students wrote when they did well on their report cards and sought advice when they received poor grades on report cards or tests. The middle-school students wrote about subjects that were difficult for them and shared fears that they had about the transition to high school. The high-school girls showed remarkable sensitivity in answering personal queries and provided a great deal of affective support.

The high-school girls sent many messages that seemed to invite a personal dialogue.

From C++ (high school mentor)
Now it's your turn to talk about yourself. Tell me anything you want me to know, anything you feel comfortable with, no pressure. Our main subject is SCIENCE & MATH, but we can bend the rules a bit. We can talk about anything (appropriate). If we do get off track too much, I'll steer us back.

Again:

"Write as much as you want about anything... I'll listen to every word you've got to say..."

In turn, middle-school students felt free to share their fears

In a sense I am a little scared to go into the high next year. Even though this school is pretty big, the first school I went to was only one floor and one room per grade. It was called the Conwell. I hope at the High that I can join lots of clubs and stuff to keep me busy like I am now.

Their successes

Hi Raye! It's Monday and we just got our report cards today. I got three A minuses, three B pluses, one B and nineteen A's. I was absent 4 times, dismissed 2 times and tardy 3 times. How did you do? I think I did pretty good.

And their disappointments

From Baby Boo:
What's up C++ me not so good because I got my report card and it doesn't look very good for me I got a D in social studies and I don't understand because I thought I was doing very well. THIS #$&?%! I don't want to go to school tomorrow.

The high-school girls wrote back with empathy, and sound advice.

C++ to Baby Boo:
Hello..glad to hear from you again. You sound kind of depressed. Don't worry, though. It will all pass soon! Make the best of what you have. Teachers can sometimes be really mean. You know what I do? I push myself over their expectations. If they think lowly of me, I prove them wrong and make them feel embarrassed that they ever said those things to me. Do extra hard in math. Make/her EAT her/his words. Go to school...although school may not seem fun, at least you're with your friends. That's what I want you to do. Hope to talk to you soon!

The middle-school student showed evidence that the high-school girl's note affected her behavior

From Baby boo to C++
Thanks for caring and I'm here today.

The willingness of the middle-school girls to speak of their weaknesses as well as their strengths created opportunities for the high-school students to offer both encouragement and practical help.

Rainbow to C++
Well, the reason I don't like Math is because it does not come easy to me. I am in Algebra 1 (that's our highest math class), but I have trouble with it.

C++ to Rainbow
Algebra I will come to you eventually, mainly because you will be using it a whole lot in high school. If you have any questions, you an ask me. I tutor pre-algebra, algebra and geometry. Don't be discouraged if you don't do well. There are some sections that are harder than others.

Learning about High School: the culture, the classes, the clubs, and the teachers.

When the middle-school girls began to converse with the high-school students it became apparent how important it was that these students came from the same district. Many messages helped to demystify the high school for the middle-school girls. The high-school students provided details about life in Somerville High School. They described the school's physical layout, interesting classes, supportive teachers to look for, and a wealth of knowledge about clubs that would support peer interactions as well as continued involvement in science and math. Furthermore, they passed on lessons they had learned about how to succeed in challenging classes, or with difficult teachers.

...High-school is actually not that intimidating....It's big, but very accessible. Room 100's are on the 1st floor (basement) 200's on the second floor...And the rooms are in numerical order. English has its own english wing...science has its own section. There are lots of clubs in the high-school. Science Club is definitely one club you should consider. We also have a math club too! Somerville high math team competes with 5-7 other schools every month... You are our successors. Once we graduate, you're gonna have to keep the team running. (MAKE SURE YOU JOIN!)

Not only did the high-school students speak of math and science clubs but they extended invitations to the middle-school girls to join. Their replies often included a mix of school-related experiences as well as discussion of clubs.

Next to homework I do lots of other activities. Math Club, science club, academic decathlon, computer club. What grade are you in? If you're in 8th grade, then I'll be expecting you to join all those clubs next year.

Middle-school girls were keenly interested to hear about the teachers. When the HS students responded, they included information about which teachers were especially supportive of students and were known for offering extra help.

Shorti (Middle School Student)
Hi !!! Could you tell me about the the teacher SHS. I want to know everything about them. Do you like them? Do you hate them. Tell me.

From Rapunzel... (High School Student)
[Ms. S.] teaches the computer courses. If you ever get a chance to take a class with her you should. She's one of the best teachers at the high school. She's there by 7 every morning to give extra help and she's there after school every day too. She really cares about her students, and everyone loves her. Her classes can be kinda tough, but she usually doesn't fail people as long as they try their best to do the work. She's my favorite teacher. Her husband comes into school a lot to help her teach, and they're so cute together. They're the nicest people. The actually set me up with my current boyfriend. It was weird to have teachers do that, but kinda cool too.

Providing a positive image about hard working students

The high school mentors often talk about working hard but reaping the benefits of their effort. They were clear that they balanced work with other interests such as dance, tennis, and socializing, but that they took their work seriously.

One middle school student writes of being self conscious of doing "too well."

Sometimes I feel stupid when I get my report card. I get A's and B's, mostly all A's. Sometimes I feel stupid because other people call me a geek and say I'm too smart. I'm proud of my accomplishments, but I feel really bad when people make fun of me.

Her high school mentor is able to reassure her:

Before I go I want to answer the question to J.T.S. about her grades. I think that you shouldn't worry about what other people think of you. Most of them are just jealous because they can't get the grades you do. When you get to high school, nobody really has problems with people getting good grades.

In response to another student who expresses fear of safety and metal detectors, the high-school mentor reassures her, while giving her advice about "hanging out" with a serious group of students. She addresses the issue of smart kids being seen as "nerds" and dispels this image.

C++
Hi! You've got the wrong impression on Somerville High. We DO NOT have metal detectors. And you are right... if you hang with the right crowd, you'll have no trouble at all. You're friends will protect you. ...If you join the math and science club, I'll guarantee you that you'll find the right crowd. We're not nerds as some people see it. We do more fooling around than we do studying, but when we do study, it's right down to business.

Other messages speak of the payoffs of seriously investing in school:

Somerville High School makes you work really hard ...Freshmen year I did homework until 11:00 PM. It was worth it... by the end, you felt really accomplished and proud.

Positive view of Math, Science, and Technology as fun, engaging students

Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions of the high school students was their genuine enthusiasm for math and science. They were unabashedly excited about these subjects and very expressive about why they thought middle school girls should pursue them.

Well, I think science is THE most interesting subject, because it is infinite, but my absolute favorite is bio. There is no end to biology. Everything will always evolve into something totally different. However, other science are also neat. Because I like bio so much, I plan on taking pre-med in college. There are so many interesting things in the scientific world. Opportunities are endless. Even computer science is an expanding field.

The computer department in the high school is awesome. Take Visual Basic freshman year... Roonea will be your teacher. Visual Basic, Pascal and Visual C are all called computer programming languages. You type in code and the computer executes the program YOU wrote. For example, in Pascal this line prints out the phrase "Hello World!"---WRITELN ('Hello World');---you get to do lots of cool stuff.

Help with science projects

Middle school students appealed to the high school students for help in selecting science projects. Here too, the high school girls showed good judgement, giving suggestions but not doing the work for them. A little bit of advice and encourage-ment seemed to go a long way.

(From HS mentor)
Like I said to Micaela, tell me what you're interested in and I'll help you think of a topic. It's no use for me to suggest a topic that you have absolutely NO interest in. Tell me what areas you like. Hey, you should be proud that you won first in the 7th grade division. You did better than I did. What was your project on? Maybe you can expand upon it. Hint: When you get to high school, judges ABSOLUTELY LOVE long term projects that you've been doing for years. Have to finish homework.. talk to you later. Bye =OP

Another exchange between a middle and high school student:

From: SIBIS-bob (middle school student)
---------------------------------------------
I haven't picked a science project yet. Maybe you could give me some ideas. I think it would be cool to work with plants. Both my sisters that are in high school now did plants for their science projects in junior high, too.

From Hades (high school student)
---------------------------------------------
Let's see, you like plants, huh SIBIS-bob? I can't exactly give you a project but I can give you some ideas. Do you want to work on chlorophyll and how light affects it? Why do leaves change colors with seasons? What about the affect of acidity and alkalinity in soil/water on plant growth or seed germination? How does gravity affects plants? That's just a few ideas from the top of my head; I may have more later as I think on it. Write me soon....

Themes that emerged from the dialogue between middle school girls and adult mentors

The dialogue between the middle school girls and the adult women was a bit more stilted than the one between middle school and high school students. Middle school students did not know how to begin the conversation. During an after-school session they "brainstormed" the following questions:

  • What was the scariest case you ever experienced?
  • What was the rarest disease that you've ever experienced?
  • Do you use math and science when you work?
  • When did you decide you'd like to do this job?
  • What made you want to do this job?
  • How does it feel to be a woman in a man's field?
  • What kind of boats do you build?
  • Are physics and engineering closely related?
  • Aren't boat builders usually men?
  • What's the worst environmental problem you've every dealt with?
  • What skills do you need for your job?

Theme: math and science in careers

Whereas the high-school girls were able to realistically depict challenges that the middle-school students would face in the near term, the adult mentors broadened students' visions of possible long term futures. The adult women were able to relate why math and science were important for their jobs. This practical, real world application of these subject matters gave these subjects a different focus other than good grades or school success.

Posted: December 15, 1997 at 05:30 PM
From: Kristen
Sub: To Lover Girl
Message:
---------------------------------------------
Some answers to your questions...I use math and science at work all the time. Some examples: When we have to figure out how much medication to give an animal we have to use math and base the dose of medication on how much the patient weighs. Just yesterday I helped to give medication to some salamanders and we had to use math to decide how much to give them. We do lots of tests using the microscope to diagnose a problem. For fish, we can see if they have any parasites. We can also look at blood on slides to make sure it is not abnormal or to see if an animal is sick.

The digestive system makes sense - it is a very physiologic system - something goes in, something goes out, things get digested and absorbed, etc. You probably think this is nuts, but it made sense to me when I was making the decision. I still like the physiology of the digestive system, and am happy to be doing what I am doing. I was doing research in a laboratory for a long time, but just stopped this past May - I hope to start up some clinical research -- research involving patients and clinical questions, soon.

Posted: December 12, 1997
From: Linda
Sub: To Soccer
Message:
---------------------------------------------
I should have guessed that you really like soccer a lot. I am the same way about rowing. It is my favorite sport. What does building or fixing boats have to do with physics? When I started working on boats, I learned about how they move through the water, what the wave profile (waterline) looks like on a boat as it moves at different speeds through the water. That's where some of the physics comes in. Figuring out how fast something moves is a kind of physics problem that involves a distance and, some specific amount of time; and then you can determine the speed or the velocity of the object.

Challenges along the way

Although the middle school students did not write to the adults about their own personal challenges, the high school girls did. The following are two such examples:

Posted: December 10, 1997 at 06:14 PM
From: C++
Sub: To Ester..
Message
---------------------------------------------
Hi Ester! I'm a junior at Somerville High School and I'm currently taking AP Biology. I think that I've told you that I want to go to John Hopkins. Other than school work, I'm in the science, math and computer clubs, which we compete w/different schools. From freshman year and into sophmore year I played varsity softball for my school, position - pitcher. Outside of school I work (tutor math), play piano, bike , fish, play tennis. I did martial arts for 6 years, but had to stop when high school started. By the way, since we're going to have a varsity tennis team for the first time, I plan on trying out. Because of all the stuff I do, PLUS inhumane amounts of homework, I catch about 5 hours of sleep a day.. sometimes less. What does it take to get in JHU? I do all these things not only for my own benefit and enjoyment, but also to fulfill college selection committee's expectations - extraordinary grades AND all around person. Currently, I'm ranked #2 in a class of 416. What are the chances of getting into JHU? Can you tell me about your situation when picking a college?

Posted: December 6, 1997 at 03:18 PM
From: Hades
Sub: Hi, Marian!
Message:
---------------------------------------------
I am really interested in certain aspects of enviromental science--marine. I really love dolphins and the orca. For my science fair project, however, I am not allowed to work with plants, unless it's something really spectacular. The last three years in high school, I worked on bacteria. Last year and the year before I worked on altering the structure of penicillin to see how that may help to make the medicine more stable and to make it work on certain bacteria now resistant to the natural penicillin. I got mixed results, so I was kind of disappointed. Currently, I would like to move my project to a next level. I am suppose to learn more towards biology and relax on the chemistry aspect of my project. I do want to know the significance of the different types of bacteria on the ecosystem. But I don't know what to do, yet..HEEEELP! Thanks. Bye!=J

Discussions about Gender issues

In terms of the teams, the girls raised the question of gender roles with their women mentors. The women were able to acknowledge the reality of role-stereotypes, while offering their own experience of success despite the difficulties:

Message: So, what is it like in a man's profession? I have to say it is a little strange... I am pretty certain that I am the only woman in the US that makes her living repairing this kind of boat... Why did I decide to get into the 'boat business?' Well, as an engineer who studied Aeronautics and Astronautics, my job choices involved a lot of Defense Industry positions. I was not comfortable with the idea of building better jets to better bombs or anything connected with wars and killing people. As a boat builder, I could still be creative as an engineer and work on something that I enjoyed

While MS girls were questioning the mentors about gender roles, they also wrote about their own perspectives on the matter. Their messages showed a wide range of opinion:

Message: Yes, I think that boys have a different attitude than girls in the math and science fields. I think that women have higher self-esteem.

Message: ... even now people think that girls shouldn't be able to learn about math and science. They think that we really smart people should stay home, cook, and get pregnant. But that is only my opinion.

Message: I don't think that boys feel any different that girls about math and science.. The only difference about boys and girls in science and math is that the girls don't raise there hands as much as the boys and the teachers call on the boys more than they call on [girls].

Message: ... In some cases, boys can sometimes be the first ones picked in class to answer a question, but a controversy has come up about that in the past years, so I think that that has changed a lot... now I think boys and girls come out equal in the sense of class work with Math and Science.

Differences Between Mixed-Age and Same-Age Forums

We noted interesting differences between the same-age and mixed-age forums. From the point of view of mentorship by HS students, the most striking was the way the high school students portrayed high school life to each other on the HS-only forum, and in the team forums. The high-school forum often presents a view of teachers with unrealistic expectations, too much work, too little sleep. The forum provided a place to express the sense of pressure, fatigue, and frustration. Yet this never seeped into the way the HS students described high school to the middle-school students.

Some typical exchanges on the HS forum:

Rapunzel, to C++....I didn't realize how much alike you two are!!! Your definitions of alive is very true; and "yes" I know what you are talking about. In fact, I don't feel so "alive" myself. Teachers are very unkind--tests, tests, projects, everyone...AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

C++ to Rapunzel
---------------------------------------------
I agree, but only some teachers are unkind. They always say that we do everything last minute, but don't they do it also. Every time a quarter ends, all the teachers think they MUST give us a test before turning in the grades. They all think "hmmmm.. since grades are due Friday, I'll give the test Wednesday. That way I'll have Wednesday and Thursday night to correct them" We always end up with four major test on one day. Not fair at all.

From: Hades
---------------------------------------------
Hi guys!!! How's everyone's short week??? Mine's horrible! They're [teachers] out of control!!! Homework, tests, meetings a SEVEN o'clock in the morning... What's NEXT??? I'm haven't had enough sleep for the past three months that we've been in school. The end of the quarter is over, why are they still cramming our week with homework and tests and projects??? I'm always half sleeping in school is that enough???? THEY ARE CRAZY, I tell ya!!! And worse off, they're DRIVING ME NUTZ (well...maybe I was a bit off balance before they got to me, but you get the idea). Well Rapunzel, get some rest this weekend... Of course, you won't be resting--you'll be too busy reading for AcaDec, right??? After all the meet IS Saturday. ... We'll talk about that schedule Monday when I see you again(all rested, I hope).

The same HS students writing as mentors to the MS students:

Posted: November 7, 1997 at 08:09 PM
From: Hades
Sub: To SIBIS-bob
Message:
---------------------------------------------
I am glad you responded, Thanks a lot. Well, being a senior can be fun, but stressful. It depends on what kind of courses you want to take. In high school, they require that you take a certain number of courses and obtain a 105 credits by the end of your senior year to graduate. You also need a certain number of credits to pass each year. Anyways, my senior year started out roughly. I don't want to alarm you, because it always takes time to get used to anything. All you have to do is not to party so much and time yourself(I don't mean, this hour do this and this other hour do that). What I mean is give yourself plenty of time to do anything(i.e. projects). It is not that tough, just straining because you have to do college applications in addition to the homework you would normally get from your classes. Right now, I am always busy and very stressed because I am involved in a lot of activities. Involvement is good, but it takes hard work.

C++ to Middle school
Although most teachers are good, most kids in upper levels get stressed. When you become a junior and is in honors, most teachers don't check whether you do your homework or not. If you don't, you fall behind. So my classmates do it anyhow. As you become older, teachers trust you more. Most of them don't collect any homework. (ADVICE: Do ALL homework) Next to homework I do lots of other activities. Math Club, science club, academic decathlon, computer club. What grade are you in? If you're in 8th grade, then I'll be expecting you to join all those clubs next year. =)Math is cool.. but Pre-Cal is not. I'm taking Pre-cal. The best is GEOMETRY, mostly because the teacher is nice (Ms. Sceppa). She's a tough teacher, but she loves to help people. She's at school at 7:00 to give morning help. I went all the time, not just for help, but just to hangout.

What kinds of scaffolding were necessary to support the dialogues, both in terms of pre-participation training, and facilitation during the project?

We had anticipated the need for some training for all participants in the use of the software, and experience in other networked communities suggested that the conversations would sometimes benefit from moderation. Project staff monitored the conversations and intervened strategically over the course of the project.

Before the pilot began, we were concerned that middle-school girls' work-processing skill might be weak enough to inhibit communication. Somerville schools have more students per computer than the state average (11.3 vs. 7.2), and few classrooms with Internet access (2.5% in Somerville, vs. 40.2% statewide; data from the Commonwealth Dept. of Education). Although only 33% of the middle-school girls had ever used e-mail before this did not prove to be a roadblock to using the site. Seventy-five percent of the middle-school girls reported having surfed the web and all said they had typed papers for school, even though only 60% reported having a computer. All middle-school students were able to use the mail functionality of the site whether or not they had prior experience.

The anonymity of e-mail proved to be a benefit. Girls who were shy to express themselves at the after-school club were very verbal on e-mail. Many were freer to express emotional content to a mentor that they had never met, (even knowing that other middle-school girls could read the messages) than they were with their peers in person.

Despite logistical problems of limited time available for the middle school girls to log on, all middle-school girls managed to log on and to maintain their participation in the program.

The website was extremely intuitive to use and participants learned to use it quickly. The middle-school girls were trained in the use of the website in the classroom where their afterschool meeting took place; the high-school mentors attended an orientation meeting run by TERC staff, in which they were coached on their roles as mentors as well as in the use of the website. The adult mentors were not coached in person at all; all communication with them was by telephone or e-mail.

As the pilot unfolded, the MS girls benefited from support in generating questions for mentors, and in interpreting their answers. At our weekly meetings with them, we sometimes proposed topics of conversation, or helped them brainstorm questions to ask their mentors. For the high-school mentors, these questions addressed topics from the safety of the high school to the teachers' personalities and other aspects of social life. For the adult mentors, they brainstormed questions that they might think to ask an ecologist, a geologist, and so on. For some girls, this was the first time they'd encountered women in these fields, and they didn't know what the names connoted; thus, meeting women in various fields enhanced the girls' sophistication about what kinds of science and technology exist. The brainstorming meetings helped provide the girls with specific questions they could build from, depending on the way the mentors responded.

The high-school mentors benefited from advice about how to engage with the middle-school students, but also gave each other guidance based on experience with their own teams. The messages presented below show how the high-school mentors at their best saw the need to read and respond to the MS girls' messages reliably, in detail, and with personal attention. This attention probably went far to establish the good conversational relationships depicted above.

By: Hades
Message: Anyways, here's my suggestion: if you write a lot to them, they'll pity you and write back(JUST KIDDING). Read their earlier comments and psych-out what they're interested in and talk about that. ...I just keep on writing and writing and writing until my hands break. Do you know what's happening with Dorothy? She's not responding to her groups questions and comments. Talk to her

By: C++
Message: I got one of my kids interested in telling a really, really funny story that happened in high school. ...Maybe it'll work with your groups. As them to tell a funny story of their own. AFTER you catch their interests, start talking about science/math...

The adult mentors also required advice about how to participate, at first. We suggested some first messages which would complement the conversations we were having with the middle-school girls about communicating with the mentors:

The girls will have questions for you, but to get things rolling you might post some initial messages. Here are some good ones to start with.

Messages to post:

  1. Introduce yourself-who you are, and what you like to do, etc.
  2. Ask the girls some questions about themselves - what they hope to do, what they think/feel about math and science, and any questions they may have about your work-life, roadblocks on the way to your present career, how you juggle work and other demands, reflections on your career, etc.

As the project continued, there were two major challenges that show a need for support and training for the mentors themselves. First, some adult mentors were quite sporadic in their communications. The students were eager to include them in the web conversations, but in some cases widely-spaced messages from the mentors may have inhibited the development of the personal relationship that could enable free exchange. Second, some of the adult mentors were not communicating in way, or with vocabulary, accessible to the middle-school girls. In some case, the messages were very long, but not tied well to the queries or interests expressed by the girls. For example, one early message from a scientist was over 1000 words in length, and couched in fairly academic terms. Other mentors did not reply to specific queries about their work or careers, while they did reply to others. In both cases, coaching about better ways to "listen" to the students, and to respond to them, could have made a difference. Such difficulties in finding common ground are often found in projects that bring scientists and students or teachers together; in addition, mentors for such a project are busy professionals themselves, so that the program must give potential mentors a very realistic idea of the time-commitment they are undertaking.

Conclusions

This pilot suggests that a network-supported mentorship program can provide important content and motivation in math, science, and technology (MST) for middle-school girls. It has provided information about the kinds of programmatic support that a school district would need to provide for the participants, and we have incorporated the lessons about scaffolding and the design of the website into a new implementation of the project.

Perhaps most interesting, the pilot suggested important complementary roles for high-school and adult mentors in the program. The high-school girls provided information and experience about negotiating high school, which the middle-school girls were eager to hear. The HS students were also able to provide a direct and personal response to many of the MS girls' concerns about their school experience, about math and science in their immediate future - high school - and about the challenges they were facing. They also were able to provide concrete and attractive examples of hard-working, successful students.

The adult mentors provided a more mature view of math and science in the real world, where success is measured in different terms than it is in school. Here, too, the women provided a sense of how their work and interests in math and science related to the rest of their lives. These benefits were available to both the middle-school girls and high-school girls, but for the HS girls the adult view was not as distant from their own concerns as it might seem to the middle-school girls.

Thus, in the three-stage design of the program, the middle-school girls get different benefits from the high school and adult mentors; the HS girls benefit from engaging in the mentorship of the girls, and from their association with the adults; and the "pipeline" is more concrete than it is in two-stage mentorships.

Salient themes arising from discussions among the participants included:

  • Affective support
  • Learning about high school culture and managing the transition
  • Providing a positive image of hard-working students
  • A positive and contextualized view of involvement in math, science, or technology
  • Issues of gender in MST schools and careers
  • The nature, rewards, and challenges of MST fields and careers

The pilot nature of this project has provided a strong support for our basic design, and has enabled us to strengthen the program in many ways as we have expanded it this year to two schools in different districts. Current research focuses on the students' use of the technology; thematic analysis of the conversations among the participants; and analysis of patterns of discourse in various forums. We hope to extend the program to further districts in the coming year, and thus be able to test elements of the program in many different contexts.

References

Canner, J. et al. (1994). Sex differences in middle-school students' attitudes toward school. Research in Middle Level Education, 18(1): 105-115

Kahle, J.B. & J. Meece. (1994). Research on gender issues in the classroom. In D.L. Gabel, (Eds.), Handbook of research on science teaching and learning (pp.542-557). New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.

Lipsitz, J., H.M. Mizell, A.W. Jackson, and L.M. Austin. 1997. Speaking with one voice: a manifesto for middle-grades reform. Phi Delta Kappan, March, 1997, pp.533-540.

Nightingale, E.O. and L. Wolverton. 1993. Adolescent rolelessness in modern society. In Takanishi, R. (ed.), Adolescence in the 1990s. New York: Teachers College Press. Pp. 14-28.

 

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