Survey gauges interest in fields of math, science

By Alexia Boyarsky

For math teacher Paula Evans, the Cold War fueled her desire to get involved in math and engineering, as the desire to “beat the Russians into space” motivated her.

Dean and former science teacher Jim Patterson knew from a young age that he wanted to try to “understand the fundamental questions of the universe.”

Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts, who taught math and science course, cites her mother, who was trained as a scientist, as the cause for her interest in science and math.

But all three have noticed a trend both at school and nationwide of students choosing not to study in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, and a disparity between men and women working in those fields. At school, students take advanced science courses and high level math courses, but few elect to pursue this in college, Evans said.

Huybrechts noticed this trend last year and started a group of six faculty members who are involved in the science and math departments that will work to promote more awareness of what jobs in those fields entail. Future plans include increasing internship opportunities available for juniors in the math and science fields with alumni, asking more doctors, scientists and engineers to speak at assemblies and to raise students’ awareness of the opportunities of STEM, Huybrechts said.

“Students have a favorable impression of science,” Patterson said, “but it’s hard for a lot of students here to tell you what scientists do on a daily basis.”

The first step in the project was completed on Feb. 17, when the math and science department sent out a 100 question survey to students enrolled in upper level math and science courses. The survey aimed to gauge student interest in math and science, to determine reasons for girls not pursuing higher level math courses and to measure how much students know about working in those fields.

“As good scientists, we began by asking questions and collecting data from the students,” Huybrechts said.

Preliminary statistics show the majority of students like math and science, but are unsure about whether they would make good scientists, mathematicians or engineers, or “if their families would be proud of them in those occupations,” Director of Studies, and member of the STEM committee Deborah Dowling said.

“I think students’ parents are more often doctors or lawyers than scientists and engineers,” Patterson said, “and they see them being very successful and they want that for themselves.”

The majority of students also believe boys and girls are equally good at science, but girls stop taking the classes because they “are not interesting to girls,” Dowling said.

“There are actually a lot of opportunities for girls here,” Evans said. “In Physics B and Calculus AB there is a 50-50 girl to boy ratio, but there are some classes with a stark disparity.”

Both Huybrechts and Evans believe the desire and need to create technology that is more environmentally friendly will fuel students to pursue science courses in the future.

“There will be excitement because we need be creative about how we can take care of all the people on earth,” Huybrechts said. “If you want to save the world, now’s the time to be a scientist.”

Future plans to promote science and math include bolstering the classes available in the summer school and working with alumni to forge connections with students who may want to pursue jobs in those fields.

“I don’t want to force them into those fields,” Huybrechts said. “Instead, I want to open their minds to the possibilities available to them.”

Evans has been working with junior prefect Reid Lidow ’10 to organize a “technology fair” that displays the work the Robotics Club, the Studies in Scientific Research class and the Rocketry Club have done.

“There is so much potential in the kids here,” Patterson said. “We need to tap into it, or else we’ll fall even further behind the rest of the world.”