CSC News

July 06, 2004

Girls on Track Camp Participants Gain New Perspective on Math, Science

Photo of Girls on Track campers at their computers."Sometimes I look and see how you can find math in almost everything. So said one of this summer's participants in Girls on Track (GoT), a two-week long summer camp for middle school girls designed to help raise their interest in math and science.

The camp is part of an ongoing research project managed through NC State's Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education in the College of Education, in collaboration with the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering.

Dr. Sarah Berenson, professor of mathematics education and director of the Center for Research in Math and Science Eduation at NC State, and Dr. Glenda Carter, associate professor in the Department of Math, Science and Technology Education, provide the math and science expertise for the camp.

Computer expertise is provided by Dr. Mladen Vouk, professor and head of the computer science department, and Dr. Tiffany Barnes, who recently received her doctorate in computer science from NC State and is now a post-doctoral researcher. Also participating is Dr. Virginia Knight, dean of the School of Natural and Mathematical Sciences at Meredith College, where the camp is held each July.

"This is our sixth year of Girls on Track, and the first year that we have run a full-day program so that girls with working parents could attend," Berenson says.

In a technology-oriented world, math and science skills are keys to future success, Barnes says. It comes as no surprise that, in the job market, IT jobs are projected to increase the most over the next ten years, she says. What is surprising is the number of women in IT careers.

The President's Council of Economic Advisors found that women make up only 29 percent of those working in IT, and hold only 10 percent of the higher level positions, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Add in the notorious wage gap between males and females, and it becomes evident that the status of women in the workforce is in need of change, especially since we may soon face a shortage of IT workers, Barnes says.

Photo of campers in their project groups.While numerous groups have studied the cause of these discrepancies between genders, no clear reason has been identified. There does seem to be a general consensus, though, Barnes says: A girl's waning interest in math and science, starting in middle school and continuing through college, contributes to the occupational inequities later in life.

No one has a clear idea exactly why girls interest wanes, Vouk said in an earlier interview. "We don't believe there is really one particular factor that causes these girls to lose interest in math and science. Instead, we believe it is a variety of factors--cultural, environmental, and social, he said. The solution is to find out how to prevent the loss of interest and work towards rekindling their enthusiasm.

He and Berenson have worked cooperatively over the years to obtain National Science Foundation funding to collect data to examine the following research questions for a seven-year longitudinal study of more than 300 girls:


  1. Do high achieving girls persist in their study of advanced mathematics through high school and into college?
  2. What careers interest these high achieving girls, including computer science, electrical engineering, and computer engineering?
  3. What role do high school computer science courses play in these girls' education?
The Campers' Log

The Girls on Track summer camp has been teaching girls math and science and reviving their interest through a series of varied, hands-on, fun activities. Campers discover how math and science apply to all aspects of life and how it can help ensure future success, Barnes says.

The first and most important concept the girls learn is how math is necessary and fundamental in modern life, she says. By researching, presenting, and comparing the salary and role of math in different careers, the girls discover that earnings are proportional to the educational requirements of a job. They also learn the "what and how" of proportions.

Photo of Girls on Track campers on an exercise at the landfill.A field trip to the Wake County landfill is another one of the campers activities. While there, they learn about what happens to trash and recyclables. Their interests piqued, the girls embark on investigations of related topics, Barnes says. In the process, they also learn how to use computers and the Internet to collect and present their data  a valuable skill they may not have acquired in their regular coursework at school.

Next, the girls unearth a crime scene through The Case of the Lost Skull, a fictitious mystery created by a middle school science teacher. Using and learning about blood typing, chromatography, dichotomous keys, DNA fingerprinting, enzymes, gel electrophoresis, and microscopes, the girls uncover clues to solve the mystery.

GoT incorporates some fun and games in the form of daily Sports Algebra sessions. The games have an underlying mathematical twist that strengthens knowledge of basic algebraic concepts such as ratios, percentages, linear equations, rates of change, fractions, and proportional reasoning, reinforced by the occasional water balloon.

Girls participating in the afternoon session this summer also had the opportunity to express themselves while exploring the mathematics of dance, art, and music.

Many also accepted a chance to participate in cutting-edge research in nano-technology and education. Using a nano-manipulator, a kind of very tiny computerized probe, they were able to experience what it feels like inside a virus. They also participated in a GlaxoSmithKline-funded project that uses a unique eye-tracking device to help determine how people learn with different media.

Following their activity-packed two weeks, the girls graduate from GoT, leaving with a new take on the topics of math and science, Barnes says.

As one of the girls put it, their concept of math and science "changed from the sterile equations we all remember to something personable that almost explains everything. The most rewarding part of the experience is learning that studying math will probably make you have a better future, she said.

The researchers hope to find this to be true as they follow the campers' progress in school, and the class and career choices they make in the years after attending Girls on Track, Barnes says.

The Girls on Track camp has been held the last two weeks of July at Meredith College since 1999, with girls from Wake and Johnston county middle schools participating. Funding for the math and science education research portion is provided by NSF and state funds through the NC State's Center for Research and Science Education. A grant from IBM is helping to defray 2004 camp expenses. Kerry Hagen, a Ligon Middle School science teacher, was camp director this summer.

- submitted by Irene Rindos, incoming freshman, NC State College of Engineering, and 2004 GoT camp counselor, with additional reporting by Anna Rzewnicki -

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