Concerned about girls' lagging achievement in science, math and technology, Maryland educators are increasingly turning to summer programs to combat the gender gap.
Single-sex programs are popping up in schools and on college campuses across the state, focusing on hands-on instruction in subjects that traditionally have had a tough time attracting girls.
"Summer is a great opportunity for us to work with the girls and focus on science," says Lynn C. Cole, an associate professor at Towson University and director of its Institute for Gifted Children.
This month, Towson concluded a two-week Academy for Applied Sciences, offering almost two dozen middle and high school girls a chance to perform experiments in such subjects as chemistry, biotechnology and statistics.
The growing emphasis on giving girls additional summertime opportunities in math, science and technology occurs as researchers are finding a persistent gender gap.
Last month, the National Council for Research on Women reported that during the past two decades, women have made gains in medicine and the biological sciences, but that progress in narrowing the gender gap in the technology and engineering fields has stalled.
In computer science, the gap has widened. In 1984, 37 percent of those earning degrees in computer science were women. In 1999, that figure dropped to 20 percent.
Researchers haven't pinpointed any one reason that boys typically show greater interest in math, science and technology and tend to perform better in those areas. Much of the speculation focuses on the belief that, because of socially accepted gender roles, boys are outspoken in class, while girls are hesitant to speak up and show that they know the right answers.
"Our girls who were phenomenal applicants on paper were not coming through," Cole says. "The influence of males was dominant."
The gap tends to become evident in middle school, when pupils generally have more freedom to choose their classes. That prompts many educators to aim their programs at girls ages 11 to 15.
"There's a perception that working on computers is all about computer programming, and that's something just for men," says Lisa Starkey, a computer instructor at Anne Arundel Community College. "That's something I'm trying to change, because there's a lot of different jobs in the computer field."
Starkey is teaching five girls this month in a course at the community college's Center for 21st Century Technology. The girls - who are entering the sixth through ninth grades - have learned the basics of how computers and networks function, and are focusing on designing Web pages.
"I like playing around with computers, but there were a lot things I didn't know how to do," says Sage Roth, 11, who will be a sixth-grader at Severna Park Middle School in the fall. "I'm learning a lot."
The programs at Anne Arundel Community College and Towson University are sponsored by the Maryland State Department of Education, which has added, at some of its gifted-and-talented centers, an emphasis on closing the science gender gap.
To avoid complaints that girls-only programs discriminate against boys, the same programs often are offered separately for boys.
"We can best meet the needs of the gifted girls and gifted boys by keeping them separate," says Gail Agor, who oversees summer programs at Anne Arundel Community College. "They have such different learning styles, and the research shows that in science and technology, the boys tend to take over."
The girls agree that their single-sex lessons tend to be more successful, in part because they're willing to be more aggressive asking questions and giving correct answers.
"The boys kind of distract all of us," says Lauren Forney, 12, who will be an eighth-grader at Stevensville Middle School in Queen Anne's County. "I think we learn a lot more when it's only girls."
The summer programs aim to expose girls not only to science, math and technology, but also to female role models in those fields.
Starkey took the Anne Arundel program's students on a field trip to meet the woman who oversees the college's networks. At the University of Maryland, College Park, summer programs for girls in physics and engineering include lessons from female professors, female graduate students and female undergraduates.
"We want the girls to meet females at every level in science," says Bernadine A. Kozlowski, the administrator of College Park's summer physics program.
Such examples of successful females can be particularly influential, says Gail Gasparich, an assistant professor of biology at Towson University.
Gasparich, who teaches in the Towson program, recalls that she went through her doctoral degree program without taking a course from a female faculty member. "That was discouraging," she says. "The science track is hard enough, but then not to see any women as your teachers can be disheartening.
"That's why my heart was in this program," Gasparich says. "I want the girls to be just as interested in science as the boys."