Vera Wubah and Michelle Swanson are trying to find a cure for AIDS. They've spent the past two weeks researching the disease -- and they're only in high school.
"We're trying to find different strategies that can be used to create a vaccine that could be used against HIV," said Wubah, 18, who will be a senior at Mercy High School in Baltimore.
Wubah and Swanson were participants in Towson University's Mathematics and Science Academy, a two-week program designed to enhance middle- and high-school girls' skills while boosting their self-confidence in the male-dominated fields.
The program, sponsored by the Maryland State Department of Education and in its third year, was originally designed as a co-ed academy for gifted and talented students. But many girls, reluctant to demonstrate their intelligence, allowed the boys to dominate the classes and conversations, said Gail Gasparich, a Towson University biology professor who is also the director of the program.
"It was a nightmare," she said. "The girls pretended to be stupid."
This year the program was split into separate camps. "It's just more casual, it's more comfortable," said Swanson, 15, who will be a junior at South Carroll High School in Mount Airy. "We don't have the sagas of liking each other getting in the way of our work. It's not like a big soap opera."
Lectures, lab work
The 23 girls in the program lived in Towson University's dormitories for the two weeks, and their days were divided between minilectures and lab work. They took classes in biotechnology, astrophysics, physics and computer science taught by Towson University instructors.
Working in groups, they also researched a topic of their choice, including antibiotic resistance, genetic vaccines and pollution in estuaries. At the end of the program, they presented their findings to their classmates and parents.
Tiffany Channing, 10, said it's easier to learn in an environment with just girls because the girls don't have to worry about what boys will think of them.
"Sometimes boys will make fun of us because we're trying to try out for science," said Channing, who will be a sixth-grader at West Frederick Middle School in Frederick.
Capable of succeeding
Lynn Cole, director of Towson University's institute for gifted and talented children, said it's important to teach girls at a young age that they're capable of succeeding in math and science. By middle school, girls' self-esteem and confidence may plummet, which affects their academic performance, she said.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, boys and girls have similar math and science proficiency skills at age 9, but boys begin to outscore girls by age 13. Programs such as the summer academy try to narrow that gap, Cole said.
"We have to be obvious that this is something they can do because there's this layer of male privilege there," she said.
Role models lacking
Equally problematic is the scarcity of female role models in math and science, Gasparich said. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women are less likely than men to earn a degree in math or the sciences. So it was important that women taught most of the program's classes, Gasparich said.
"If you look up and everyone who is in a profession is not like you, then what signal does that give you?" she said.
The girls said they're not letting the numbers discourage them.
"It just makes me want to go out and be in the science field more and help prove that women can do it just as good as men, if not better," Swanson said.
Pub Date: 7/24/99