It's not often that Garrison Forest School teacher Kelley Davis has to coax reluctant sixth-grade girls to answer difficult questions in her science classes.
During a recent session, eager pupils tapped their feet, waved their hands and jumped out of their seats to get her attention. They all wanted to talk about divergent and convergent tectonic plates.
Davis, a microbiologist who turned to teaching eight years ago, and Head of School G. Peter O'Neill are thankful for that enthusiasm, but they also know it could quickly be snuffed out.
"Over the years, studies have shown that girls' motivation in math and science declines at the middle-school level," said Margi Hoffman, middle school head at Garrison Forest. She noted that some people think boys naturally do better in those subjects, a false perception that turns some girls away from the sciences.
Administrators at Garrison Forest - a private girls school in Owings Mills - want to dispel that myth through a partnership with the Living Classroom Foundation, a nonprofit education organization based at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
The school and the foundation are working together for three years to track pupils as they move through science-related classwork and field activities, starting in sixth grade. The girls keep journals and will be surveyed from time to time.
O'Neill hopes that by the time the girls enter ninth grade, they will have formed a positive attitude about science and might decide to pursue careers in science.
This month, sixth-graders visited a Living Classroom laboratory to explore water pollution and its effect on marine life. Some learned about sailing and physics aboard the USS Constellation.
O'Neill, a member of the Living Classroom Foundation's Educational Advisory Committee, came up with the idea for the partnership and had little trouble selling it to the foundation. The school will pay $10,000 a year to help support the endeavor, which will include regular visits to the foundation's learning sites.
Although more women are going into careers that require academic degrees in biology, chemistry or physics, a gender gap exists.
"We can't make the assumption that society has changed so much that girls can just breeze in and get jobs in science fields," said Hoffman. "We have to provide [girls] with role models. There are still some barriers."
Garrison Forest isn't alone in trying to do that, said Whitney Ransome, co-executive director of the National Coalition of Girls' Schools. She pointed to private girls schools nationwide where students are learning about design technology or working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
"What sets these schools apart is a real can-do attitude," said Ransome. "Girls are expected to participate in the sciences, and therefore they do, and for a longer amount of time."
Davis, the science teacher at Garrison Forest, said, "We know we're not going to graduate all scientists here, but we want all girls - even those who don't want to pursue a career in science - to have an understanding of the world."
From the sound of it, the sixth-grade class at Garrison Forest is off to a solid start in pursuing that knowledge.
During a recent geology lesson, Davis kept a brisk pace, and her students stayed with her, at times pushing the teacher to jump ahead to the next lesson.
"We went to California and to the Pacific Ocean, and it was really, really cold," said Kelsey Nussenfeld, 11. "Was that because the ocean is deeper?"
Kelsey was right, and Davis made sure she knew it.