You can just take notes: examining gender roles in STEM classes at The Urban School

Vivien Manning, Features Editor

Amid a national conversation about female underrepresentation in advanced science and technology classes, many Urban students and faculty see stereotypes about women in STEM persisting in course enrollment and classroom dynamics. While many female students go into life sciences or chemistry, a discrepancy exists in UAS physics classes, where the ratio can be as extreme as 1 female student to 15 male students.

An anonymous student described her experience in a male-dominated physics course. She said, “I felt like there were times during labs where I wanted to be included in something, but someone who had maybe played with [circuits] as a kid, or maybe knew something going into the class, wouldn’t include me in the lab… I felt like other people repeatedly would say ‘Don’t worry about it, I’m doing it, you just take notes.’”

Ronan Weber (‘18), who identifies as trans, shared the experience of discomfort in the male- dominated atmosphere of STEM classes. They said, “I didn’t feel comfortable asking for help, especially if there was a male teacher, that was a constant theme in all my STEM classes.”

Both Weber and the anonymous student emphasized the importance of having female teachers in STEM classes who could understand their experience to some degree. Many voiced that having female teachers not only increases the visibility of women in STEM, but their insight into the experience of women in STEM provides an outlet for understanding and discussion.

“When there are male teachers, I’m never confident that they understand what is happening, the microaggressions, hints of subtle misogyny and subtle sexism [that occur]… When the teacher is female, they are aware of what is going on in the classroom dynamics. Being able to talk about classroom dynamics and feeling like I have the voice to talk about a classroom dynamic as it relates to gender [is important],” said an anonymous Urban student.

Bethany Hellerich, who teaches Urban X Labs and physics courses, notes the rise in confidence she sees in female students over the course of a trimester. She said, “it’s really nice to see a girl who had [a negative] experience in middle school take a class and at the end be like, ‘I totally know how to use that drill,’ and to have that fear go away. It makes me happy as a teacher, as a woman in physics, to see that development go from ‘I know nothing about electronics’ to ‘this is my project, and it’s a super high level project.’”

In order to make female students feel comfortable in a male-dominated class, some teachers will arrange the seating so all the female students sit together. Hellerich explained, “It does actually allow the girls in a massively gender disparate class to do better and feel more confident and understand they do have a place in the class and they don’t know less than the boys in the class.”

Urban faculty are aware of the gender discrepancy across science courses and are seeking to rectify the enrollment bias. Individual recruitment is one aspect of their approach. Science Department chair Matthew Casey explained, “When the science teachers do their course recommendations, we also have a category for STEM and we flag girls who are particularly suited for those types of classes and we or their advisor will have a one on one conversation with them encouraging them to take the class.” In addition, physics has been integrated into the Science 1A program in the hopes that it will be more accessible to students and less intimidating when it comes time to sign up for courses.

Urban teacher Samantha Littlejohn has addressed this issue in an independent research project she conducted in Science 2B. Through surveys assessing student confidence in lab skills and designing experiments at the beginning and end of the class, she found “at the end of the class, there was no longer a statistically significant difference [between female and male students] which I thought was really interesting. For me personally as a teacher, I’m really curious about looking more into that. I’m going to try to figure out if people are coming into 2B with a difference in confidence by gender… Is it something kids actually come to Urban with or is it something that arrives throughout their experience at Urban? I’m particularly interested in figuring out what worked in 2B to help eliminate that confidence difference and how we can hopefully eliminate it sooner.”

Many girls have been exposed to stereotypes about women in STEM by the time they enter Urban. Tess Cogen (‘22) said, “The whole reason I didn’t like math was because all of my friends were like, I hate math, all the books I was reading said girls aren’t good at math.”

The anonymous student added, “Most of these things are not being influenced by Urban. So much of the undertones are all influenced by what people learn the minute that they’re born. How they grow up, what they hear about in the news, the Internet, all of these things that Urban can’t control. Sometimes I forget that all those exist, and that I can’t go into a classroom thinking this is Urban, this will never happen.” What goes on within an Urban classroom will inevitably be shaped by the outside world, and this is no exception.